Michael L. Quintos
Need a pick-me-up from a bad day? Aching to smile heartily through a pleasantly peppy stage musical? Then you need not look further than the rousing, just-launched new touring production of the Tony Award-winning hit '42nd STREET', now currently entertaining audiences at Orange County's Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa through November 22.
Earnestly cheerful and unabashedly optimistic, that feel-good, all-singing, all-dancing 1980 stage adaptation of Busby Berkeley's classic 1933 movie musical (itself based on the Bradford Ropes novel) is back on the road in a brand new, vibrant non-Equity tour with a couple of familiar names in the credits: Randy Skinner, who choreographed the Tony-winning 2001 Broadway revival, and his colleague, co-book writer Mark Bramble, who helmed and revised that very same production. Both creatives—who each received Tony nominations for their respective work in that revival—have returned to reintroduce their contributions to a new generation of theatergoers via its young, energetic, incredibly likable ensemble cast that brings vim and vigor to the aging Great-Great-Grand-Daddy of all backstage musicals.
The bright and sunny showtunes spectacular—a welcome antidote to today's cynical, uneasy times—was certainly helpful in lifting many spirits (well for a little while, anyhow) when it arrived in cinemas during the Great Depression, and then did so again in its 1980 Tony-winning debut and as a well-received Broadway stage revival that opened in the summer of 2001.
Boy, is this show ever more needed in 2015!
While, sure, '42nd Street'—which takes a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a new Broadway musical in the 1933—is replete with eye-roll-inducing clichés, not so complicated plot machinations (with very little conflict), and very old-fashioned attitudes from a bygone era, this eye-popping, buoyant musical is nonetheless delightfully fun and harmlessly frothy. Aside from its highly-recognizable, nostalgia-baiting 30's songbook by lyricist Al Dubin and composer Harry Warren (which includes ear-worm ditties like "The Lullaby of Broadway," "We're In The Money," "I Only Have Eyes For You," "Shuffle Off To Buffalo," and, of course, the self-assured title song), this current touring revival features the same dialogue authored by director Bramble and book collaborator Michael Stewart that's adorably antiquated in both style and delivery.
Much, much more exaggerated than I have ever experienced it in any prior productions, this new tour iteration purposely and deliberately over-emphasizes the affected, old-school style acting and line/lyric delivery quite synonymous with other similar, early 20th Century vintage titles—the very kind you'd likely expect from early 30's/40's-era black-and-white Hollywood flicks filled with shady, fast-talking gangsters and bawdy, entendre-spewing screen sirens. Admittedly—perhaps for a good fifteen minutes or so—the over-affected line delivery felt a bit laughable and off-putting at first, only because it was so excessively amplified.
But after a while, you pretty much get used to it, especially after realizing that everyone in the cast is employing this same hammy, over-affected delivery with such believable commitment and admirable gusto. It just becomes second nature to the proceedings. Eventually, this stylistic acting choice proves utterly endearing, and it actually sells the musical's overall treatment even more—becoming a significant part of its inescapable charm.
Even the musical's infamous signature line ("You're going out there a youngster, but you gotta come back a star!") feels appropriately gosh-darn over-the-top by the time the musical gets to it. I suppose if everything must be exaggerated, they all might as well do so in a huge way!
Of course, at the heart of the show is the fictional story of the making of a brand new Broadway musical called Pretty Lady, the latest song-and-dance extravaganza from infamous Broadway mastermind Julian Marsh (played by the dashing Matthew J. Taylor, who also impressed just months ago on this very stage as Sky Masterson in the non-Equity GUYS AND DOLLS tour). Aiming to please his musical's wealthy new backer, Southern tycoon Abner Dillon (Mark Fishback), he reluctantly agrees to audition then eventually hire Abner's lover—famous aging stage star Dorothy Brock (the impressive Kaitlin Lawrence).
Though Dorothy proves that, despite her enormous diva attitude, she still has the singing pipes to carry a show, she is still, however, not quite the best dancer Marsh was hoping for in a marquee star. Marsh hilariously reworks the show to better suit its problematic center. But even worse, we learn that she is secretly having an affair with her supposed former beau, the mysterious Pat Denning (DJ Canaday), putting the contentment of Abner—and the future of Pretty Lady itself—in dire jeopardy.
Meanwhile, New York newbie Peggy Sawyer (convincing ingenue Caitlin Ehlinger) has just stepped off the bus from her home in Allentown, PA seeking to fulfill her musical theater dreams. Her late arrival at the Pretty Lady chorus girl auditions initially gets her turned away, yet she somehow manages to later land a coveted spot in the chorus after Marsh—in the right place at the right time—witnesses her undeniable talents during a fortuitous dance routine that breaks out over lunch with the other girls in the show (wow, how refreshingly friendly and non-competitive they all are with each other!)
With the cast set, the company heads off to Philadelphia to have the show's out-of-town tryouts. There, on opening night no less, overwhelmed young Peggy accidentally knocks into Dorothy, causing the show's star to fall and break her ankle during the big finalé. With their star injured, the show is forcibly shuttered until further notice. Naturally, Marsh is inconsolably furious—causing him to fire Peggy quite abruptly. So with her dreams dashed, Peggy decides to give up and head back to her hometown.
No worries, though. '42nd Street' is a happy, hopeful, aspirational fable, so this bit of darkness doesn't dare stay too long.
Like pretty much every Garland/Rooney "Hey, you guys, let's put on a show" film ever, the plot shuffles off predictably to become a rah-rah mission to remount the show with a renewed purpose and drive towards becoming a Broadway sensation. With the fearful prospect of being unemployed (particularly at the height of the Great Depression) very much on top of their minds, the Pretty Lady's plucky cast—led by flirty leading man Billy Lawlor (the charmingly suave Blake Stadnik) and the show's resident comedians/writers Maggie Jones (the hilarious Britte Steele) and Bert Barry (Steven Bidwell)—collectively agree to convince their boss Mr. Marsh to consider re-hiring Peggy to be the savior of their ailing show... because, well, she's a super-amazing, fierce performer that can totally carry this show—plus she's waaay nicer than the tempestuous woman she, um, inadvertently placed in a wheelchair! The show's set to open on Broadway in less than 48 hours, so the clock is ticking!
Soon the whole Pretty Lady gang, including stern Mr. Marsh, puts on a high-kicking flash mob at the train station to try and convince Peggy to come back to the show and be its new star. Surprise! (Not really). Of course, she accepts. Well, c'mon... how could she ever turn the gig down with this elaborate of an ask—and that big of a possible payoff in the end?
Exceeding expectations rather winningly, this new touring production of '42nd Street'—much like its young, star-to-be ingenue Peggy—is itself also a spunky little theatrical triumph. Please do not let this tour's use of a non-Equity ensemble fool you into thinking you're not getting a Broadway-caliber production. On the contrary, this admirable, luxe production (presented by Troika Entertaiment) is quite a rousing, genuinely entertaining romp that boasts surprisingly top-notch visuals and first-rate casting of bright new talents.
Here, Beowulf Boritt's opulent yet smartly economic and travel-friendly set designs, and Ken Billington's dynamic stage lighting are nicely paired with Dave Bova and J. Jared Janas' hair/wig/make-up designs and Roger Kirk's marvelously shiny costumes. The exultant sounds of the pit orchestra led by musical director J. Michael Duff is musical throwback heaven. And, wow and holy cow to Skinner's jubilant staging and choreography, which is filled with high-energy moves and some incredible, jaw-dropping displays of syncopation! You're nuts if experiencing this doesn't have you wishing immediately to learn—or perhaps to rekindle a personal affection for—the smile-inducing art of tap-dancing.
From the moment the swells of the overture segues into the raising of the curtain (well, the initial half-raising, really) during the opening number that reveals those cheery, impossibly syncopated "dancing feet," '42nd Street' continuously delivers on the promise of top-notch, classic, Busby Berkeley-style theatrics. That opening tap number is the perfect set-up for even more dazzling feats of song-and-dance still to come.
But most exciting of all, is that this new '42nd Street' tour has felicitously assembled a rather large company of mostly fresh-faced, infectiously enthusiastic, and noticeably youthful triple-threat actors. These kids are so uniformly talented and endearing that you can't help but cheer them all on as they do their best to entertain the audience and take on this old-fashioned classic musical.
Leading the charge is lead actor Taylor, who has a distinguished stage presence and has believable command of the roost as Broadway impresario Julian Marsh. His strength and extremely impassioned performance sets the over-affected tone that all his co-stars gamely try to match (or, perhaps, out-ham). His version of Marsh is quite a nice contrast against co-star Ehlinger's youthful, sweet-natured portrait of ecstatic dreamer Peggy Sawyer, who like her character also has superb singing and dancing skills. And as aging diva Dorothy Brock, Lawrence is convincingly mature in her portrayal and offers up some really nice vocals to boot.
Other noteworthy cast standouts include dance phenom and theatrical prodigy Stadnik as the utterly charming Billy Lawlor; fleet-footed Lamont Brown as choreographer Andy Lee; Mallory Nolting, Vanessa Mitchell, and Natalia Lepore Hagan as Peggy's eventual work BFFs Phyllis, Lorraine, and Annie respectively; and Steven Bidwell as the reliably humorous Bert Barry. And then there's voluptuously over-the-top scene-stealer Steele as comic relief Maggie Jones, who immediately becomes an audience favorite with her hammy perfection in every scene she's in (squint a little and you'll think you're witnessing the second coming of the great Ethel Merman in this terrific newcomer).
As a cohesive, wonderfully in-sync ensemble, though, these fine group of fresh thespians and hoofers are especially outstanding together. The show's iconic musical numbers in their very capable hands (and, well, very limber feet) sparkle with unbridled joy. Whether its high-stepping through the title song or high-kicking through the show's ode to newfound wealth and fortune ("We're In The Money" is one of the show's many highlights that make the show a must-see).
Overall, this brand new touring '42nd Street' is a sure-fire crowd pleaser for classic musical theater fans, group dance enthusiasts, and showtune neophytes alike. Why resist such an optimistic, genuinely entertaining, unapologetically perky musical that lifts spirits?
** Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8ivemlq
Photos from the current National Tour of '42nd Street' by Chris Bennion. Review originally published in OnStage.
Performances of the new national tour of '42nd Street' at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, November 22, 2015. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.