Tapping Into the Past
This revival of 42nd Street is a musical-comedy lover's musical comedy, a self-referential tribute to an artform that's already self-referential and artificial at its most sincere. Writers Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble don't even try to create multi-dimensional characters or to imbue the hoary old plot (bright-eyed ingenue becomes a star when the narcissistic lead is unable to go on) with pathos or originality. The story is not just cartoony, it's deliberately, mockingly so -- a kind of wink-wink at the innocence of the 1930s, when people flocked to feathered-and-sequined dance extravaganzas to forget the poverty and misery of their own lives. So we see marcelled hair, art-deco set design and a Busby Berkeley-style sequence in which the synchronized arm and leg movements of dancers lying on their backs are reflected in an overhead mirror. (It's hard re-creating film magic on stage, though. The mirror is too small for the Buell Theatre, cutting off parts of the image for anyone not sitting directly in the center.) And, of course, there are lots and lots of glittery female dancers with flying feet and amazing high kicks, and there's one number in which top-hatted men dance with all the debonair elegance of Fred Astaire.
The backstage theme has never lost its appeal, from Kiss Me Kate in the 1940s to A Chorus Line in the 1970s, and the dancing in 42nd Street leaves the '30s to pay tribute to slightly more modern choreographic styles. Unfortunately, I found the climactic dance sequences of the second act's Pretty Lady (the play within the play), and the extended routine that provides the show's ending far more mechanical and less appealing than most of the tapping that had gone before. Nonetheless, 42nd Street is a lot of fun, and much of its strength comes from the chorus. There's size, ambition and hubbub to this production, and something genuinely pulse-quickening about the sight of dozens of talented tappers working in unison or in counterpoint, providing quick staccato jabs of sound, or a roar that sounds like a herd of buffalo in full stampede. Randy Skinner is credited with the new choreography, which is based on the original work of Gower Champion.
The script may not call for characters you can love or empathize with, but the production is hugely strengthened by the presence of a group of veteran performers, who convey more depth than their dialogue suggests. Blair Ross is the sulky diva Dorothy Brock; she plays the role as a collection of mannerisms, but there's no disguising her stage presence, physical grace (deployed to absurd effect, but grace nonetheless) and rich, deep singing voice. Patrick Ryan Sullivan, as Julian Marsh, the cynical director of Pretty Lady, also has a fine voice, as well as a convincingly world-weary manner. Patti Mariano is Maggie Jones, one of the producers of Pretty Lady. She's effervescent and sympathetic, and she waltzes away with most of the scenes she enters.
The male ingenue, Robert Spring, doesn't have a lot to do beside provide mindless optimism, skilled dancing and a lot of energy, and this he does. Catherine Wreford gives Peggy Sawyer, the young girl who flies to stardom when Dorothy Brock breaks an ankle, just a little edge. Sawyer might be a pussycat now, her performance implies, but she could easily mature into someone more interesting. Wreford is also an amazingly fast tapper.
The best thing in the show, however, is Dexter Jones, playing dance director Andy Lee. When 42nd Street opens, he's leading the chorus through its routine. He demonstrates; they tap. They tap; he demonstrates. Everyone taps together. He's smooth, graceful and commanding. He makes everything look easy. Lee pretty much fades from the action three-quarters of the way through, and it's a real loss.
42nd Street could be twenty minutes shorter, but all in all, it's well executed, full of flair and a lively, enjoyable evening. There are also a number of nostalgia-inducing songs, like "I Only Have Eyes for You," "You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me" and "We're in the Money." And it doesn't hurt that "Lullaby of Broadway" -- wonderfully staged here -- still gets this onetime New Yorker misty-eyed.
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