Nicole Helfer gets kicks as Cassie in SF Playhouse’s ‘Chorus Line’

Dancemaker Nicole Helfer, center left, also is appearing in "A Chorus Line" at San Francisco Playhouse. (Courtesy Jessica Palopoli/San Francisco Playhouse)

It simply couldn’t be more fitting that Bay Area musical theater veteran Nicole Helfer is playing Cassie in San Francisco Playhouse’s current production of “A Chorus Line”—and she’s also choreographing the show.  

“It means so much to me,” says Helfer of the 1975 Broadway blockbuster in which dancers auditioning for a coveted spot in a Broadway ensemble bare their souls. “It’s about what it’s like to be an artist, and what we sacrifice to be artists. It’s meaningful in the way it was created, too. The way that Michael Bennett gave voice to these voiceless performers is revolutionary, in a way,” adds Helfer.

Nicole Helfer returns to the role of Cassie in San Francisco Playhouse’s “A Chorus Line.” (Courtesy Jessica Palopoli/SF Playhouse)

Helfer isn’t new to the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning show originally choreographed and directed by Bennett. Decades ago, she played Cassie, the performer whose tryout for the chorus represents a demotion, when she was a teen attending a dance and theater school led by Marilyn Izdebski in San Anselmo.

Helfer got her start teaching dance, there, too, after Izdebski was injured and confined to a wheelchair.

“I was thrown into the deep end. I had to take over all of her classes, and I ended up teaching about 15 classes a week all through high school,” says Helfer, who’s been teaching all sorts of dance (tap is her sentimental favorite) ever since.

That type of experience isn’t entirely unfamiliar to Helfer, who adds, “I literally have lived the actor’s nightmare of going on with no rehearsal.”

At San Francisco Playhouse, she has filled in for injured or sick dancers in shows she choreographed, including “Cabaret,” “Groundhog Day the Musical” and, in particular, last year’s “Follies,” which was hit by a COVID outbreak: “I went on for three different people!” she says.

But being a lead actor and choreographer at the same time in a San Francisco Playhouse show is a first for Helfer, who has “nodded to” Bennett in creating the dances. She says she is able to do it thanks to support from associate Keith Pinto (who’s playing Zach, the director, in the show) and assistant Clint Calimlim, whom she’s known since college. (A truly “local girl,” Helfer went to San Francisco State University and has studied and worked strictly in California.)

But Helfer admits it’s a challenge doing both jobs, which are different: “As a choreographer, I hold all of the patterns and am looking at the big picture, like how everything fits together in the puzzle and the way things are moving, as opposed to this specific one person doing this particular thing on this certain number.”

Boasting a resume packed with local references and award wins and nominations, Helfer’s first professional choreography gig was in 2010, for “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” at the defunct Willows Theatre Co. in Martinez. She also has choreographed for The Mountain Play, Ross Valley Players, 42nd Street Moon, Broadway By the Bay and Ray of Light Theatre.

On the performing front, she’s been almost as busy. Among her favorite roles: Fantine in “Les Misérables” and Audrey in “Little Shop of Horrors” at Contra Costa Musical Theatre and Marian the Librarian in a community theater production of “The Music Man.”

Even though the theaters she’s worked with recently have not been able to acquire the rights to “Chicago,” Helfer would really like to do that show someday: “I love how much of a social commentary it is on how we’re addicted to violence and darkness.”

She experienced her own dark period during the peak of COVID, on the faculty at the Oakland School for the Arts.

“It was the worst year of my life. How do you teach theater not in-person?” she asks rhetorically, adding, “I tried to do full-scale musicals on Zoom, which is maybe the hardest thing you can do.” Still, the theater department pulled off 13 performances of two shows: Middle schoolers in “The Addams Family” and high schoolers in “Spring Awakening.”

“It was crazy,” Helfer concludes.

Optimistic now that the theater world is returning to normal—at “A Chorus Line” rehearsals, mask-wearing hasn’t been required, a first since the pandemic—Helfer also is pleased to be working again with many cast members she’s known from previous productions in a such an appealing, timeless show.

“There’s something really beautiful about doing something for love that I think is a universal truth,” she says, adding that there’s an intensity to playing a role that relates to her real life: “It’s sometimes harder when you do deeply connect to the character because you can’t hide behind it. It’s almost like you have to love yourself even more and be even more vulnerable.”  

“A Chorus Line” runs through Sept. 9 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$100 at or (415) 677-9596.  

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