Vt. actors share ‘What I Do for Love’
By Kevin O’Connor
Staff Writer | July 27,2014
Jacki Brown Photo
Vermonters, from left, Zach Gordon, Kristina Meima, Jim Raposa, Leah Cunningham and Hayley Swinburne are part of the cast of the Weston Playhouse musical “A Chorus Line” opening this week.
WESTON — Tuesdays through Sundays for most of the month, 17-year-old Leah Cunningham has driven mile after mile to Vermont’s oldest professional theater company to play out the same sad scene.
Clad in a black leotard and ballet skirt, the aspiring Chester actress follows a choreographer’s instructions — “step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch … again!” — again and again.
“Broadway shows?” the director repeatedly asks of her resume.
None yet, she must acknowledge.
“Thank you very much for coming,” the director replies each time. “I’m sorry.”
So why does Cunningham keep returning audition after audition? Because the recent Green Mountain Union High School graduate is rehearsing what’s actually the first number of the behind-the-scenes musical “A Chorus Line,” opening this week at the Weston Playhouse.
The company has hired professional actors from New York and other cities since its founding three-quarters of a century ago. But for this summer’s big show, it is giving five Vermont performers the chance to sing and dance alongside their metropolitan counterparts.
“Even though my character gets cut after the first number, I wouldn’t trade this for anything else in the world,” Cunningham says. “This show really encompasses a lot of what I expect I’m going to do the rest of my life.”
Cunningham is one of four young locals who appears in the “I Hope I Get It” audition scene before their characters are dismissed by a director portrayed by another Vermonter, Burr and Burton Academy theater teacher Jim Raposa.
“I started as a kid and loved being able to entertain people,” says Raposa, echoing the comments of seemingly every other cast member. “There was nothing else I wanted to do.”
The 50-year-old New England native and 1985 Emerson College theater major had to travel far and wide to work — from the musical “Cats” on Broadway to the television show “Fame” and film “Newsies” in Hollywood — before he took his current job at the Manchester school in 2007. That’s one reason why he appreciates Weston.
“It allows those of us who’ve worked professionally to still get a chance,” Raposa says. “To be able to be with a company of people like this is a gift.”
His fellow Vermonters agree. Hayley Swinburne grew up 10 minutes from the playhouse in South Londonderry, then studied dance at State University of New York’s Purchase College, Philadelphia’s Rock School for Dance Education and through trips to Burgos, Spain, and Perth, Australia. Now living and working in New York, the 26-year-old leapt at the chance to escape the heat and perform back home.
“I gave up lots of teaching gigs and more money in the city,” Swinburne says, “but I’d be silly not to take this opportunity, and it’s one step further to doing what I want for a career.”
Kristina Meima relates. The soon-to-be Brattleboro Union High School senior studies at both her hometown Music Center and School of Dance when she’s not attending Weston rehearsals up to eight hours a day, six days a week.
“When I first got here, I second-guessed myself — am I in way over my head?” the 18-year-old says. “But I want to see the real thing. I want to know what it is actually like.”
The musical dramatizes the audition process for a show, with Marvin Hamlisch songs including “What I Did For Love” and “One (Singular Sensation).” Meima didn’t let word that Weston already had enough actresses stop her from expressing interest and earning a part she exits some 10 minutes into the first scene.
“I know I’m in a show and it’s part of the opening number, but every time I get cut, I feel a bit emotional,” Meima says. “I’ve given up a lot of things for theater, and I was a bit intimidated when I first started here because I knew I would be working with professionals. But now I’m 100 percent sure I want to go into musical theater as a career, so being able to do this is so crazy amazing.”
Zach Gordon, also 18, just graduated from Burr and Burton Academy, where his theater teacher — and now onstage peer — told him that Weston was looking for a few good men.
“I’m fresh out of high school and I’ve been given this chance to work with professional actors,” Gordon says. “Most people don’t get this until after four years of college.”
Malcolm Ewen, the musical’s director and part of a longtime trio of Weston artistic leaders, says his institution benefits from tapping local talent.
“It connects us to the community and it’s an opportunity people don’t get otherwise,” Ewen says. “It’s a win-win.”
Even when you lose out. Cunningham — make that Leah M. Cunningham (“Keep the middle initial — I’m trying to develop my stage name”) — debuted in Weston’s 2007 production of “The King and I” when she was 11.
“Being surrounded by all these wonderfully talented people and realizing this is so much fun, I thought, ‘Why can’t I do this forever?’”
Alas, the director of the 2008 follow-up “Les Miserables” chose another child for the role she wanted.
“I’ve had the highs and I’ve had the lows,” says the girl who went on to dance in Weston’s “42nd Street” last year. “It’s OK because every audition prepares you for the next one. Everything is a learning process. This show gives the audience about two hours of what we go though in our business.”
Cunningham may not make the chorus line nightly, but she has won admission to upstate New York’s Elmira College, where she plans to double major in theater and business administration.
“I’m hoping if I’m not in the show,” she says, “then I’m running it.”
Weston’s production of “A Chorus Line” opens Thursday and runs through Aug. 23. More information is available online at www.westonplayhouse.org, by phone at 824-5288 or in person at 703 Main St. Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.