Theater Review: 42ND STREET (National Tour at Pantages Theatre Hollywood)

Post image for Theater Review: 42ND STREET (National Tour at Pantages Theatre Hollywood)

by Tony Frankel on June 1, 2016

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours

THE LAND OF 10,000 TAPS

Call us saps or suckers but we can’t, it seems, get enough of “The Understudy Who Becomes A Star.” Not when the sweet and satisfying story is stuffed with thrills like “Lullaby of Broadway” and “Young and Healthy.” Some clichés justify themselves, if only because nothing less than hokey can fill the sentiment completely.

The Company of 42ND STREET -National Tour

When Busby Berkeley’s 1933 film classic 42nd Street (with added songs from the catalog of Harry Warren and Al Dubin added to their already superb score) became in 1980 a successful, Tony-winning musical (the last offering from the great Gower Champion), it proved you don’t need a Depression to justify a good time (though, thanks to the 1%, the number “We’re in the Money,” with its giant rolling coins, sounds more like wishful thinking than ever).

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Over 80 years later, Peggy Sawyer, the tap-dancing chorus girl from Allentown who makes it big on the Great White Way, replays her all-American success story in another electric revival. It’s Cinderella with tap shoes instead of glass slippers. Mark Bramble’s non-Equity touring revival pulls out all the showbiz stops to deliver a spanking old-school staging packed with sheer moxie, boffo savvy and pure pizzazz. Even Randy Skinner’s revolving choreography (“gold diggers of 2016”?) artfully imitates the motions of Busby Berkeley’s overhead cameras.

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Peppy, perky, breezy and campy in the cutest way, Troika Entertainment’s 150-minute 42nd Street also preserves the film’s hungry edge and desperate-to-please energy. The big change from screen to stage is to downplay the chirpy Ruby Keeler-William Powell romance between plucky chorus girl and smiling juvenile and to play up–to please original producer David Merrick–Peggy’s fixation on her hard-boiled, control-freak driven director Julian Marsh. Regrettably, it mars the democratic and downhome romance between boy-next-door Billy and unassuming Peggy. It also gets in the way of the show’s chief interest: Peggy overcoming her shyness, discovering her undeniable talent and selling it–along with the show Pretty Lady–to Philadelphia’s Arch Street Theatre, New York’s 42nd Street Theatre, and the world.

The Company of 42ND STREET National Tour

The plot, patched together from a slew of Warner Bros. musicals by Mark Bramble and Michael Stewart, has a hole in it as big as Times Square: If only for insurance purposes, no Broadway-bound production, Great Depression or not, could afford not to have an understudy for the leading lady from the first day of rehearsals—or rely on one sugar daddy for financing. Still, this tribute to the “glittering gulch” of Times Square is as fine a hymn to showbiz solidarity and team spirit as A Chorus Line. It glows with solid showmanship in this eye-popping, heart-pounding, knowing and loving revival. Echoing the showy sets from past Broadway production revivals, it may misstep with the usually mirrored “Shadow Waltz,” here clumsily done with silhouettes on a screen. But the awesome staircase of the Broad Street terminal, where “Lullaby” gets hoofed out, supplies its own swooping and soaring spectacle (although Beowulf Boritt’s trimmed-down set included a train station backdrop that wavered with the wind of some two dozen dancers).

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The opening tap dance rouser, an audition made in heaven, is enough to bring down the house. But the edifice continues to tumble with the Ziegfeld-florid spectacle of “Dames,” the chaotic precision of “Getting Out of Town,” the marquee-bright splendor of the title song, and the vaudeville hijinks of “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” (complete with tiny sleeping cars that revealed chorus girls in salacious lingerie). The many chorus boys and chorines are worth their weight in Kruggerands.

The Company of 42ND STREET National Tour.

Carrying the show as no understudy ever could is Caitlin Ehlinger, no platinum-blond Peggy Sawyer but a bumptious brunette whose inexhaustible tap dancing and lyrical assurance can only improve on Ruby Keeler’s wooden original. (Of course, she goes in a chorus girl but she comes out a star.) Sumptuous tenor Blake Stadnik, as her adoring but muted Billy, smilingly exploits what’s left of a role that was virtually handed over to Julian. Matthew J. Taylor plays the director with the right mix of messianic rigor and paternal regard, but Julian remains a character who seems warmer on the page than he ever is in life. As the descending diva Dorothy Brock, who Peggy replaces as inevitably as Eve Harrington does Margo Channing, Kaitlin Lawrence blends bitchiness with class. Britte Steele is all brassy broad, and Steven Bidwell is a mousy second banana, as the songwriting team and performers Maggie Jones and Bert Berry. But even in this “c’mon, kids, let’s put on a show” make-believe context, some of the characterizations could have been toned down by Bramble, who recreates Champion’s original direction.

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Ensconced on the giant Pantages Theatre stage, the proscenium set looks a tad shrunken. But, within its arch and burnished in the glow of Ken Billington’s footlights, Boritt’s inventive and fast-moving set pieces illustrate every song as richly as its lyrics. His pop-up picturebooks perfectly complement Roger Kirk’s time-travelling costumes, Depression elegant in their flouncy escapism.

Kaitlin Lawrence, Blake Stadnik in 42nd Street.

Above all, there’s the tap dancing, the heartbeat of happiness. In “Keep Young and Beautiful,” “With Plenty of Money and You,” “There’s A Sunny Side to Ev’ry Situation,” and “I Only Have Eyes For You,” this special step fuses effortless aplomb with a degree of difficulty to rival any corps de ballet’s tandem arabesques. It’s the perfect exponent and incarnation of the youth and hunger of driven dancers—both in 1933 and 2016. Shuffle off to Hollywood Boulevard.

Caitlin Ehlinger (center) and the Company of 42ND STREET National Tour The Company of 42ND STREET - the National Tour

Caitlin Ehlinger, Matthew J. Taylor in 42ND STREET.photos by Chris Bennion

42nd Street
Hollywood Pantages
ends on June 19, 2016
for tickets, visit Pantages

touring through July, 2016
for dates and cities, visit 42nd St

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