Tuesday, October 11, 2022

42nd Street: Tapping Their Way to Glory

Carina-Kay Louchey and Max von Essen lead the cast of 42nd Street in the "Lullaby of Broadway" number. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

You know you’re in for a bright evening when, immediately after Adam Souza and the band finish the overture for the Goodspeed Opera House’s production of 42nd Street the curtain rises just high enough to reveal the legs and fervently tapping feet of a dozen or so expert chorus girls and boys. The opening was the inspiration of the show’s original director-choreographer, Gower Champion, and if the dancers are skilled, a mood of impending joy descends on the audience at the outset. In this case, the dancers are marvelous, and the show that follows in their wake is a first-rate entertainment.

Champion brought 42nd Street to Broadway in 1981, nearly half a century after Warner Brothers released the classic film. Along with the initial pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Flying Down to Rio over at RKO, it ushered in a golden age of movie musicals as well as a series of Warners backstage musicals with extravagant numbers devised and shot by the prodigious Busby Berkeley, who had traveled from Broadway to Hollywood courtesy of impresario Florenz Ziegfeld. (Berkeley’s first job as dance director – as choreographers were then called – was for the faithful 1930 film adaptation of Ziegfeld’s hit show Whoopee!, starring Eddie Cantor.) 42nd Street wasn’t the first backstage musical: Warners had produced On with the Show in 1929, and The Broadway Melody had won the Oscar in 1930. But it was 42nd Street, scripted by James Seymour and Rian James (from a Bradford Ropes novel), with book scenes directed by Lloyd Bacon, that introduced the beloved – and much parodied – tropes: a big musical by a veteran producer-director (Julian Marsh, played by Warner Baxter) beset with difficulties as it wends its way toward opening night, a chorus of hopefuls for whom the show is a stopgap against unemployment in the depths of the Depression, an arrogant leading lady (Dorothy Brock, played by Bebe Daniels) whose tycoon lover is shouldering the costs of the production, a couple of romances in the wings. And, of course, the delectable climax, where the leading lady breaks her ankle and a chorine (Peggy Sawyer, played by Ruby Keeler) goes on in her place, saving the show and becoming the newest shining star on the Great White Way.

Endearing and enduringly entertaining as it is, 42nd Street isn’t the best of the Busby Berkeley musicals; Gold Diggers of 1933 is better, and Footlight Parade soared on the incomparable energy and the superlative dancing of Jimmy Cagney. (Amazingly, all three came out in 1933.) Truth to tell, the stage version, with a book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, improves on its source. It’s more deluxe, and we don’t have to put up with the hopelessly wooden Ruby Keeler. It also contains more numbers, with interpolations from other movies filling out the original score by Al Dubin and Harry Warren. (They were Warners’ resident songwriters during the thirties.) So, in addition to “We’re in the Money,” “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me,” “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” “The Shadow Waltz,” “Young and Healthy” and the title song, we get “Go into Your Dance” and “About a Quarter to Nine” (from Go into Your Dance), “Lullaby of Broadway” (from Gold Diggers of 1935) and “Dames” (from the picture of the same name). Revivals tend to add their own selections: Goodspeed’s includes “I Only Have Eyes for You” (from Dames) and “With Plenty of Money and You” (from Gold Diggers of 1937).

In 1981 the show starred Tammy Grimes as Dorothy and the amazing Jerry Orbach as Marsh. It returned to Broadway twenty years later with Christine Ebersole and Michael Cumpsty, this time directed by Bramble, with new choreography by Randy Skinner, who was at the beginning of his career. The Goodspeed version lists Skinner – who has since worked on many more musicals in the intervening twenty-one years, including two I particularly loved, the touring White Christmas and, for Encores!, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – as  director as well as choreographer. His use of the ample but compact Goodspeed stage is enormously skillful, especially in the transitional “Getting Out of Town,” where the company moves to Philly for the out-of-town tryout, and the climactic “Forty-Second Street” number. My memory of Champion’s original dances from four decades ago certainly isn’t sharp enough to report on the difference between his and Skinner’s, and this is the third production I’ve seen with Skinner’s signature. (I caught one in London in 2017.) Skinner’s work is superb – varied and imaginative, with tapping that looks, to my untrained eyes, close to flawless. Whenever the choreography threatens to become conventional he adds an element that refreshes it. The highlights include “Go into Your Dance,” where Lisa Howard (as Maggie Jones, the co-writer of the show within the show, Pretty Lady), Carina-Kay Louchiey as Peggy, Eloise Kropp, Sarah Dearstyne, dance captain Kirsty Fuller (who stepped in on press night for Candice Hatakeyama) and Lamont Brown as dance director Andy Lee take over the floor of a diner, where they’re joined by a trio of tapping waiters; “We’re in the Money,” the unofficial first-act finale (moments later, Dorothy’s accident stalls Pretty Lady and rings down the curtain); “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” which showcases Dubin’s ingenious lyrics and features a delightfully brassy performance by Howard’s Maggie as a Pullman porter; and the title number. “Forty-Second Street,” with its panoramic depiction of the boulevard where “the underworld can meet the elite” and its melodramatic climax, is danced beautifully, especially by Louchiey, Blake Stadnik (as Pretty Lady’s tenor lead, Billy Lawlor) and Brady Miller, and it’s a banquet for the audience, which responded with cheers as well as applause. It was the second time a dance stopped the show; the first was the audition at the top.

Kate Baldwin in 42nd Street. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Dorothy is played by Kate Baldwin, one of my favorite musical-theatre divas, and she’s wonderful: hard-boiled and witty, but with a private melancholy that surfaces when she’s alone, especially after she’s treated the man she really loves, her old vaudeville partner Pat Denning (Patrick Oliver Jones, affable in a very slight role), badly. Skinner has added a down-tempo version of “I Only Have Eyes for You,” partly to give her a moment of softness and regret. Dorothy is unremittingly bitchy to Peggy, but half an hour before the show begins with Peggy in her place, she hobbles into the younger woman’s dressing room on her crutch to give her a pep talk. The speech is pure kitsch, and almost impossible not to play as camp up. But Baldwin does something startling with it: she plays it straight, with heart, and it’s actually touching. In the stage show she goes on to advise Peggy to relax on her eleven o’clock number, “About a Quarter to Nine” – to hold back and let the audience come to her. Then she sings it to give her a sample of what she means, and eventually Peggy joins in. It’s a lovely bonus in any production, but here it’s much more. Earlier we heard Julian explaining to Maggie and her co-writer Bert Barry (E. Clayton Cornelious) that Dorothy is such a pro, so effortlessly comfortable on stage that she can trick you into underrating her. In “About a Quarter to Nine” Baldwin shows you just what he means. It’s her finest moment, in a performance made up entirely of high points.

And I think that the second most impressive scene belongs to Louchiey. She’s charming as Peggy: her acting is winningly understated, her singing is sweet and strong, her dancing is terrific. But if we’re truly going to believe in this character, we have to see that she has begun to turn herself into the sort of grown-up, confident performer who can carry a Broadway musical. The ending works in either case because it’s so satisfying, but usually we laugh at it at the same time, pleased by the fairy tale but  too savvy to give into it. Louchiey is the first Peggy I’ve seen who’s so convincing in the “Forty-Second Street” number that it moves us.

For the first act I found Max von Essen (he was Henri Baurel in An American in Paris on Broadway) competent but a trifle bland as Julian Marsh, but he finds his footing in act two, when, having been converted to the idea of putting Peggy in the lead, he chases her down at the Philadelphia train station to persuade her to return by serenading her with “Lullaby of Broadway.” (The whole company follows him down there and joins in. It’s a hell of a scene; she can hardly refuse.) The rest of his performance, through his final words to Peggy after the show and his solo reprise of “Forty-Second Street” at the end, is on the mark.

The standouts in the supporting cast are Lisa Howard, Lamont Brown (my favorite dancer on the stage) and Eloise Kropp as Anytime Annie (the part Ginger Rogers played on screen, just before she jumped ship to RKO and danced into Fred Astaire’s arms). The lush costumes are by Kara Harmon; Cory Pattak’s lighting helps give the show a larger-than-life quality. The set designer Michael Carnahan has sculpted a theatrical world out of stairs and scaffolding that frames Shawn Duan’s excellent, wide-ranging projections. (One I particularly loved quotes the Russian-French artist Erté, the king of art deco.) 42nd Street runs through November 6. Take a ride to East Haddam, Connecticut and take it in.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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