Los Angeles Theater Review: 42nd STREET (Carpenter Performing Arts Center)

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by Jesse David Corti on October 31, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles

FLEET FEET, HOLLOW HEART

When notes jostled in and out of the written score during the overture of Musical Theatre West’s 42nd Street, it portended a production that doesn’t have all the Jesse David Corti’s Stage and Cinema review of 42ND STREET at Musical Theatre West in Long Beach (Los Angeles)ingredients in place for a fully satisfying experience. The opening, that has the curtain raise just a bit to let us meet a chorus of dazzling dancing feet, is tastefully teasing. Then, the curtain draws up all the way and the assorted elements find their groove and the dashing ensemble wows with a lengthy tap number. Unfortunately, as the story begins and the characters come forth, it’s certain that this production is full of great singing and dancing, but lacking in affecting acting—which poses a big problem for this piece because of its tired, old-fashioned, schmaltzy book (based on the 1933 movie musical of the same name). With its big sets, great numbers, and spectacular singing and dancing, what could have been a razzle-dazzle expression of the triumph of hard work—and the benefits of never giving up—becomes a hollow vaudeville revue.

Jesse David Corti’s Stage and Cinema review of 42ND STREET at Musical Theatre West in Long Beach (Los Angeles)In the height of the Depression, a once-successful dictatorial Broadway director Julian Marsh (Damon Kirsche) attempts to mount a tremendous musical extravaganza, titled “Pretty Lady.” If it flops, forty kids are out of a job and out on the street. In order to ensure its success, Julian needs both leading lady Dorothy Brock (Tracy Lore)—whose glamour years are at least fifteen years behind her—and her Texas sugardaddy, producer Abner Dillon (Paul Ainsley), who is fronting the production.

Jesse David Corti’s Stage and Cinema review of 42ND STREET at Musical Theatre West in Long Beach (Los Angeles)Enter starry-eyed, triple-threat Peggy Sawyer (Tessa Grady), who escaped Allentown to make a name for herself on The Great White Way, but she always seems to trip up or doubt herself at the wrong moment. Adding to the zaniness is the leading man tenor (and cad) Billy Lawlor (Zach Hess), who can’t help making passes at women when he’s not rehearsing, and Pat Denning (Christopher Guilmet), who is secretly back in a relationship with his beloved Dorothy Brock. When a terrible accident threatens the premiere of the show, can an Allentown girl save the massive Broadway production from ruin with just 36 hours of rehearsal?

Jesse David Corti’s Stage and Cinema review of 42ND STREET at Musical Theatre West in Long Beach (Los Angeles)Oddly, Damon Kirsche plays Julian Marsh as a stiff guy who lacks charisma and machismo, when the role screams to be played as a manly, magnetic hardass. As such, in spite of his glorious baritone, his performance falls flat and drags the production along. Zach Hess has a gorgeous tenor and dances well, but doesn’t embody a Don Juan ladies’ man. Paul Ainsley as Abner Dillon is serviceable in his performance, playing the role by the numbers. Tracy Lore does a tremendous job of playing the conflicted and troubled former star who is trying to hold her life together in spite of all the hoops, hurdles, and professional and personal obstacles that she has to endure; Lore is grounded in her performance as Dorothy Brock, making every note she sings and every line she says resonate. Tessa Grady is a flashy tapper, an adroit comedienne, and sings with a wonderfully bright voice as the upstart Peggy Sawyer. Unfortunately, she has many scenes with the two leading actors who play their characters as cardboard cut-out, ineffective men and she is hamstrung; there’s Jesse David Corti’s Stage and Cinema review of 42ND STREET at Musical Theatre West in Long Beach (Los Angeles)only so much that can be done when both men don’t seem to take a liking to the young, sweet, innocent girl—and yet the story calls for those men to do so.

Caitlyn Calfas nearly steals the show as Ann Reilly, the chorus girl who aids Peggy; her spunky exuberance springs forth in all areas—dancing, singing, and acting—providing the production a well-needed breath of fresh air. Because the role of “Pretty Lady” co-writer Bert Barry has been combined with the part of the choreographer, Jamie Torcellini showcases a wonderful breadth of physicality; whether it’s tap, tumble, or running man, he provides some of the best-earned laughs. As the other co-writer, wisecracking mother-hen Maggie Jones, Barbara Carlton Heart has an almost performance; she plays the role well, but her beats are slow and her affectations are overly hammy. The entire ensemble is sharp, their voices strong, and their dancing stronger: not one of ‘em is out of step or out of time, tapping with panache.

Jesse David Corti’s Stage and Cinema review of 42ND STREET at Musical Theatre West in Long Beach (Los Angeles)Choreographer/Director Jon Engstrom stages the show well and the Gower Champion dances are executed terrifically. All of his song and dance numbers come alive, but not all of his actors. With all of the rehearsal, specificity, and nuance laden in each number, it’s frustrating that the story is not communicated in an engaging, dynamic fashion as well. Michael Borth’s orchestra is not tight and as a result it provides an unnecessary distraction to the production and an unusual diversion from appreciating the clever songwriting of Al Durbin and Harry Warren. Jean-Yves Tessier’s consistently solid lighting work is no exception here—save for a shaky-handed spotlight operator; Tessier creates dynamic lighting for the hot, hot numbers, and stark, intimate, particularly effective schemes for the intimate scenes. The sets, courtesy of Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston, Inc., are impressive, vibrant, and fittingly grand.

The show’s nostalgia and old-fashioned nature serve as a double-edged sword. It can be cutting if vividly realized, giving the show a fresh and dynamic bent, or it can be plodding and dull when it only goes through the motions seen in previous productions. This show falls under the latter category, but could have risen above it if only the acting and storytelling were as sharp as the singing and dancing is.

Jesse David Corti’s Stage and Cinema review of 42ND STREET at Musical Theatre West in Long Beach (Los Angeles)

photos by Alysa Brennan

42nd Street
Paul Garman Presents in association with Musical Theatre West
at Carpenter Performing Arts Center, Long Beach
scheduled to end on November 11, 2012
for tickets, 562-856-1999×4 or visit http://www.musical.org

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