Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Festival’s 42nd Street taps its way into audience’s heart

Glamour, glitz and leggy girls abound in 42nd Street. (Andrew Eccles photo)

42nd Street
Stratford Shakespeare Festival
Music by Harry Warren  Lyrics by Al Dubin
Book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble
Based on the novel by Bradford Ropes
Directed by Gary Griffin
Musical direction by Michael Barber
Choreography by Alex Sanchez
Festival Theatre
Runs until October 28

Review by Geoff Dale

Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again may have ideally depicted his literary protagonist George Webber but it certainly doesn’t fit the bill for Cynthia Dale.

After five years away from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s centre stage, Dale returned to thunderous opening-night applause for her spot-on portrayal of past-her prime prima donna Dorothy Brock in the exuberantly lavish musical answer to the Great Depression – 42nd Street.

The performance is particularly satisfying given her history of playing ingénues in such musical fare as South Pacific, Guys and Dolls and Man of La Mancha. Here she does a complete about-face, as a fading singing star – one whose reputation is likewise noteworthy for her inability to dance.

With all the venom and spite she can muster, she balks at the notion of relinquishing the spotlight to Peggy Sawyer (Jennifer Rider-Shaw), a nervous but enthusiastic new chorus girl from Allentown, Pennsylvania. In short, she is a sublimely nasty villainess who masters the art of chewing up the scenery and spitting it out with grand relish.

One has to credit director Gary Griffin for not shying away from a work that boasts such a long and illustrious history dating back to the Dirty Thirties. Instead, backed by an energetic company of singers, dancers, actors and musicians, he tackles the task with gusto, ensuring the latest revival of an old chestnut loses none of its luster.

Based on the novel by Bradford Ropes, 42nd Street made its first appearance as a 1933 American Warner Bros. musical film directed by Lloyd Bacon with choreography by Busby Berkeley and starring Ruby Keller.

The film was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1934. In 1998 it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

When Berkeley died in 1976, it was widely recognized as the archetypal backstage musical, and as the late film critic Pauline Kael noted, one that "gave life to the clichés that have kept parodists happy." The 1980 Broadway revival, directed by Gower Champion, who died six hours before opening curtain, won the Tony Award for Best Musical.

So clearly Dale, Griffin and cast have taken the multitude of cliques to heart, embracing them and ultimately producing a festival hit that will likely have crowds tapping their toes, mouthing the lyrics and cheering with delight until the autumn.

Musical director Michael Barber, conducting his talented troupe of musical colleagues from an above centre stage balcony, captures the brassy, sassy feel of Harry Warren’s score. Choreographer Alex Sanchez gloriously tips his hat, in memory of the flamboyant Berkeley, giving his dancers plenty of opportunities to glitter in the gaudy, brilliantly-lit spotlights.

There are plenty of fine performances to note, like Sean Arbuckle’s brash take as dictatorial director Julian Marsh, a role the late Jerry Orbach brought to the 1980 production; Gabrielle Jones’ gloriously over-the-top songwriter Maggie Jones who appears to be channeling the spirit of Broadway’s great shouter Ethel Merman and the perky Rider-Shaw as Sawyer.

The loose-limbed Kyle Blair shows off a great set of pipes as Billy Lawlor. Steve Ross would make Larry Hagman (Dallas) proud with his sly portrayal of the shunned Texas sugar daddy/financial backer Abner Dillon and, teaming up with Dale once again, C. David Johnson (of Street Legal fame) has a fun minor bit as Brock’s romantic interest Pat Denning.

For local theatre-lovers, check out Oxford County’s Kayla James in her Festival debut as one of the young tap-dancing chorus girls Lorraine Flemming.

So is 42nd Street great theatre? Judging from the audience response, the answer would be a resounding yes. But let’s turn our collective eyes to a few theatrical cliques for further analysis.

They don't make 'em like anymore! Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Girl fills in for the ailing leading lady and tap dances her way to stardom. And then boy gets girl. This is one of the all-time brassiest plays and the tap-tap-tappiest show you’ll ever find!

Verdict is in - **** out of four stars.

Approximate running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: 1-800-567-1600 or online

This review is also posted online at:  The Beat

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