Last year, Catherine Ricafort graduated from USC with a degree in industrial engineering. Today, she’s starring in a national touring production of A Chorus Line. It opened in Los Angeles yesterday.

Surprised? So is she.

How high · Catherine Ricafort (third from right) plays Connie Wong in the touring production of A Chorus Line, now at the Pantages Theatre. - Photo courtesy of Broadway/L.A.

“I knew that musical theater was fun,” Ricafort said, “but I never thought that I wanted to do it for a living or pursue it professionally.”

But now that she is, she says it’s a dream come true.

It isn’t as though Ricafort had never stepped foot on a stage before securing her role in A Chorus Line. Singing and dancing were the pastimes of her youth, and her mom turned her on to Broadway show tunes at an early age.

In college, Ricafort performed in a handful of dance companies and shined in the SoCal VoCals, one of USC’s most admired a cappella groups.

“I always kept it up because I knew it was something I couldn’t live without,” she said.

Ricafort knew when she picked USC that she was expected to pursue a technical education, so she chose industrial engineering. She flourished in the program, earning top marks, winning coveted research grants and scoring impressive internships. Although she picked up a minor in musical theater, singing and dancing were always firmly rooted in the extracurricular realm. Ricafort never seriously considered herself Broadway-bound.

But sometime during her senior year, she realized the least she could do was give it a shot.

“This is something you can only do while you’re young,” Ricafort said. “I figured that before I get fully into the momentum of an engineering degree, I should try for this, at least try to shoot for my dream to be on Broadway while I can.”

So while some of her classmates went backpacking through Europe after graduation, Ricafort packed her bags for New York. Anyone who wants to be in musical theater, she noted, moves to the Big Apple.

“This was sort of like my treat to myself,” she said.

She found a place to live and started immediately on the grueling audition circuit, frequently waking up at 5 or 6 a.m. to get in line with hundreds of other people all dreaming the same dream. She remembers the process being “really, really scary” for someone who had always lived close to home.

“They say the golden rule of musical theater is that you’ll land one out of every 100 auditions that you get,” Ricafort said.

But it only took Ricafort a few weeks — not 100 auditions, but a lot, she said — before she got her lucky break.

She was cast in On the Town at the well-known Paper Mill Playhouse outside of New York.

But A Chorus Line was her big break.

The audition process consisted of several rounds, each of which ended in a series of cuts. First, participants were asked to do a dance combination. If they weren’t cut, they were asked to sing. If they got through that round, they were asked to act. Then the process repeated itself.

“It was very intimidating,” Ricafort said, “because we were auditioning for some of Broadway’s greatest legends.”

Especially nerve-racking for Ricafort was the fact that she was auditioning in front of Baayork Lee, the choreographer for the show and the inspiration for the role of Connie Wong, which Lee originated on Broadway in 1975. It was the role Ricafort was hoping to get, and eventually did.

“It was hard to live up to that and impress her, but she showed a lot of confidence in me,” Ricafort said. “It’s been an honor and a privilege to work with her.”

Also on the auditioning panel was the show’s director, acclaimed Broadway veteran Bob Avian, who took home a Tony for his original choreography of the show.

Ricafort — a newcomer to the scene with nothing in her back pocket but passion and an old dream — never let herself think she had the role in the bag, afraid she would psych herself out. She treated the ordeal as though it were only a workshop.

“Don’t think about what’s at the end, just enjoy the process,” she kept telling herself.

When Ricafort eventually got the part, she was, of course, thrilled. It was exactly what she had hoped for when she moved to New York.

A Chorus Line is the simple story of 17 dancers auditioning for a limited number of spots in a show — a premise that resonated particularly with Ricafort, who was in that same place. The stage is bare and the costumes aren’t fancy; it’s only the performers and the audience. An innovative work in its time, the show won nine Tony Awards and might be said to have anticipated reality shows like American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance?, which put talented hopefuls in front of not only industry veterans but a national audience — to be scrutinized on an even larger scale.

Of course, these are actors, but the feelings aroused in the audience are essentially the same. Some live vicariously through these players; others are content merely to enjoy their formidable talents.

Ricafort said you can have no knowledge of the theater and still take something away from the show.

“The stories that the characters go through — the inspirations that drive them and the struggles that they face — can be applied to any career that you’re pursuing,” she said.

As for Ricafort’s career, she certainly hasn’t given up on engineering. Before she landed A Chorus Line, she was working on her master’s degree in engineering through the USC Viterbi Distance Education Network, but had to put it off while she was on tour. Asked about the surprise she gets when she tells people she majored in engineering and is now performing onstage, Ricafort was quick to point out that theater people aren’t airheads.

“While doing theater professionally, I’ve actually met a number of very brilliant minds in the business,” she said, noting that one of her fellow cast members is pursuing a physics degree at Columbia and is going to work for NASA after the tour.

“Theater seems like just song and dance and happy, fun playtime on the outside, but it requires a lot of discipline, strength and a lot of thinking,” Ricafort said. “You have to adapt to so many stories, people and environments. It requires a lot of brain power in addition to the performing talent.”

The Pantages Theatre in Hollywood is the final stop for the A Chorus Line tour, and it will be there for the next two weeks. Students can get rush tickets for $25 if they don’t mind waiting around for a couple hours before the show.

After the curtain falls for the final time, Ricafort plans to return to New York, where she’ll start auditioning all over again. She isn’t quite sure what the future will bring, but she doesn’t necessarily want to know.

“I think I’ll just see where it takes me, and take it one step at a time,” she said. “I’m still young, and I don’t necessarily have to decide everything right now. If opportunities present themselves, I’ll take them.”