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by Michael L. Quintos
To high kick-start its—wow—60th anniversary season, Musical Theatre West in Long Beach is presenting a glossy, high-energy revival of what could be the Great Grand-Daddy of all backstage musicals: 42ND STREET. This terrific, tap-tastic new production, directed and choreographed by Jon Engstrom—himself a veteran of the original Broadway production—continues performances at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center through this Sunday, November 11.
Fun, frothy, and ecstatically old-fashioned, this 1980 Tony Award-winning Best Musical—itself adapted from the original 1933 Busby Berkeley movie musical—is as forgivably clichéd as it is enjoyably winsome in its behind-the-scenes dramatization of the making of a Depression-era Broadway musical. The real draw of the show, besides its nostalgia-baiting score and its talented, fleet-footed cast is, of course, all that wonderful, spirited dancing.
From its first heaping helping of a kick-line (and, really, who doesn't love a good kick-line?) to its rousing, awww-shucks gumption of a grand finalé, the musical manages to be superbly entertaining—all without the aid of any special effects wizardry that has become a lazy, go-to staple of some modern-day musicals.
This is definitely a show from a bygone era, and everything from the period-perfect costumes to the way phrases are methodically delivered reminds you of that (the dialogue reminds me of classic black-and-white movies where people say "now... listen here, see..." or "well, golly jeepers" or "come on, toots" in adorable vintage-speak). A few times, though, modern self-awareness is allowed to peek through, particularly in some of the more cheeky one-liners that bounce off characters in delightful, snark-tinged ricochet—yet still untarnished by 21st Century cynicism. Who knew? It's a show that revels in its unapologetic optimism!
The musical begins with a mesmerizing display of syncopated tap-dancing: it appears to be a hoofer audition for a brand new musical Pretty Lady, produced by noted Broadway impresario Julian Marsh (the impressive Damon Kirsche), a stern showrunner known for his dictatorial leadership style. Unfortunately for New York City newcomer Peggy Sawyer (the beguiling Tessa Grady)—who literally just stepped off the bus from her hometown with dreams of making it big on Broadway—has arrived too late and is denied a chance to audition.
But outside the theater, a few of the girls in the show take pity on the wide-eyed ingenue and after a quick advice sesh, they improvise a dance routine over lunch. Unbeknownst to them all, the whole scene is witnessed by Julian, who has taken an instant liking to the newbie and makes room for her in the cast.
Meanwhile Julian has other issues to deal with—particularly the one in the form of Dorothy Brock (the amazing Tracy Lore), an aging former stage star with an outsize diva attitude that doesn't particularly match her abilities. She is a bit offended that she is still being required to audition for the show's lead role, despite Julian's explanation that they just needed to make sure the songs met her standard.
You see, the normally strict Julian has reluctantly agreed to cast Dorothy in order to keep his show's wealthy financial backer—and Dorothy's boyfriend—Abner Dillon (Paul Ainsley) happy, and not pull the plug on the musical. But—ohmigod—it turns out Dorothy is still seeing her old boyfriend Pat Denning (Christopher Guilmet) on the side, opening up the risky possibility of shutting down the show.
Alas, it is not Dorothy's secret affair that jeopardizes Pretty Lady. On opening night of the show's out-of-town tryout in Philadelphia, poor Peggy accidentally crashes into Dorothy, rendering the star's ankle broken. Fuming with rage, Julian fires Peggy. Yikes.
But a show this bubbly and optimistic doesn't stay dark too long. Like pretty much every Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney musical ever filmed, the plot maneuvers its way into a quest to get the show going despite such apparently insurmountable obstacles. Thus, with the show in danger of closing for good and never opening in New York, the cast—fearful of unemployment during a Depression—collectively convinces Julian that Peggy is actually the one person that could save the show... you know, since she's naturally super-amazing and all.
After the most rousing "come on, you can do it!" train station flash mob—set to the show's most famous tune "The Lullaby of Broadway"—Julian and the gang convince Peggy to abandon her plans to return to her little po-dunk town and star in Pretty Lady instead. Somehow, the trick works, with Peggy agreeing to learn the lead role from scratch in just two days. I'll give you one guess as to how it turns out.
Palpably buoyant and sometimes—hello—surprisingly cheeky, MTW's thoroughly entertaining 42ND STREET is infectiously charming from start to finish. Long, looong before the TV series Smash offered a fictionalized peek at the behind-the-scenes drama of the making of a Broadway musical, 42ND STREET infamously came early and stuck around as an indelible tale of talent triumphing over karma-plagued divas and good ol' reliable doubt. Well, lookee there! This girl's got it and she's gonna be a stah, I tells ya! A star!
Much of it rings a bit seen-this, heard-that, but that vibe in no way hinders the show from being an honest-to-goodness enjoyable musical. In fact, I would venture to say that the show's old-fashioned, unflaggingly optimistic roots make it all the more entertaining, especially in today's dour economic times—a similar escapism the 1933 film provided to Americans back in Depression as well. The show's plot isn't complex, sure, but, really, who cares when you're too busy smiling at the singing and dancing!
And, oh my, the dancing! It's been quite a while since I've seen this much precisely-coordinated tap-dancing on a stage, and in this department, MTW's 42ND STREET absolutely does not disappoint. Much of that can be attributed to the fantastic staging and choreography devised by director Engstrom—himself a former dance captain of the original Broadway production. Engstrom clearly has an affinity for the material and the time period it portrays.
Plus, the spectacular showmanship of the show can also be attributed to the music as well. This version of 42ND STREET not only contains the familiar songs culled from the film but also the rich back catalog of composer Harry Warren and lyricist Al Dubin, adding to the show's musical richness. While the truly young and uninitiated will scratch their heads, many will instantly recognize songs like "We're In The Money," "You're Getting To Be A Habit With Me," "The Lullaby of Broadway," "Shuffle Off To Buffalo," and, of course, the title song.
Much of this sort of moxie and charming derring-do at the heart of this joyful show is definitely matched by the ensemble that has been put together to exude it. Kirsche gives a fine, authoritative performance as Julian Marsh, filling the producer's dancing shoes and expensive suits convincingly. And like Peggy, you too will have a tough time saying no to the guy. Speaking of Peggy, MTW newcomer Grady is a wonderful ingenue, but turns on the jaw-dropping dance moves like a light switch. Her singing and dancing skills are undeniably great. And as Billy, Peggy's aspiring paramour, Zach Hess provides plenty of awww-shucks smoldering that charms.
In brief but otherwise noteworthy—and, at times, even scene-stealing—turns are Ainsley as yee-haw-ing Abner Dillon, and the terrific comedy duo of Barbara Carlton Heart and Jamie Torcellini as Maggie Jones and Bert Barry, respectively. Also providing some lovely supportive girl-power solidarity with Grady's Peggy are Caitlyn Calfas (as Ann), Evie Hutton (as Phyllis), and Lindsay Kristine Anderson (as Lorraine).
And, finally, there's Lore—who, once again, as in the plethora of roles I've seen her embody in recent years, proves what a truly great singer-actress she is. Her Dorothy Brock is quite full-bodied, eliciting a varied range of understandable emotions that give the character a deeper, multi-layered humanity than what was probably written into the page. There are certainly plenty of holier-than-thou diva characters in the pantheon of musical theater, but her take on this particular one exudes a skillful hybrid of old-school chutzpah and modern-day pathos. Her solo in "I Know Now" is just remarkable.
As for the ensemble as a collective whole, I for one remarked upon this amazing cast and thought to myself, damn, I wish I took tap lessons when I was younger. The cast's effervescent nature is so genuinely infectious, making the case for how much fun it all is. All that toe-tapping is a dizzying display of sheer, beaming delight—the kind that will make you want to get up and tap, too.
Overall, MTW should be quite proud of their enjoyable revival. It's old-fashioned fun without being stuffy or groan-inducingly un-hip, and yet still totally comfortable in its optimistic skin. And if there was ever a time where hope and optimism is so badly needed, it would definitely be right now.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos by Alysa Brennan. Top: Julian (Damon Kirsche) and Peggy (Tessa Grady). Below: Dorothy (Tracy Lore).
Final remaining performances of Musical Theatre West's 42ND STREET continue through Sunday, November 11 and are scheduled Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., with a 7 p.m. performance added on November 4, and one 8 p.m. performance on Thursday, November 8. Tickets start at $20. There is a $3 service charge per ticket. Prices are subject to change without notice. Group rates are available for 12 or more.
Musical Theatre West performs at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center located at 6200 E. Atherton Street in Long Beach, CA.
For tickets or for more information, please call 562-856-1999 x4 or visit online at www.musical.org.