At the Drury Lane Theatre
by Dan Zeff
Oakbrook Terrace–-No patron with functional eyes and ears will fail to be delighted with the dancing in the Drury Lane Theatre revival of “42ndStreet.” The tap dancing in particular is dazzling, a judgment the opening night audience happily validated with its applause and cheering.
Beyond the consensus praise on the show’s hoofing, there is room for discussion. Director Michael Heitzman in his program note states “With nostalgic shows like “42nd Street” we often sit back and let the familiarity of these types of shows wash over us. We stop engaging. We stop listening. Really listening. I’m not sure that Heitzman speaks for the typical audience for this show when he talks about not engaging and not listening.” Every production of “42nd Street” I’ve seen has gotten rousing responses from the audience, who obviously were listening and were engaged. As I watched with some perplexity on opening night, I sensed that the director was trying to fix something he feels was broken. I think this is one of those shows that loses more than it gains from too much rethinking.
Photo Credit: Brett Breiner
“42nd Street” is a musical adaptation of a forgotten 1932 novel that achieves classic status as a 1933 musical. The movie was turned into a stage musical in 1980 that ran for most of the decade on Broadway and became an international hit. The show follows a fictional Broadway musical of the early 1930’s from audition through rehearsal to the opening. It’s partially built on the cliché about the unknown girl from the chorus who is rushed into the leading role after the star is injured, saves the show, and becomes an instant star herself. The director’s charge to Peggy Sawyer on opening night curtain rises is one of the most famous in show business–“Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster, but you‘ve got to come back a star!”
The score is the work of Harry Warren (music) and Al Dubin (lyrics). Only four of the songs were retained from the movie and the remainder was interpolated from other music numbers of the 1930’s. The biggest flag wavers include the title song, “Lullaby of Broadway,” “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me,” and “We’re in the Money.” Virtually every number is attached to a scintillating ensemble dance exhibition.
“42nd Street” is a great backstage musical and also a persuasive view of the Great Depression, set in the early 1930’s when the country was reeling from massive unemployment. Those chorus guys and girls in the show fastened onto the show like a lifeline. “We’re in the Money” is a jaunty tune but beneath the chirpy lyrics and gleeful dancing there is deep anxiety. The performers need this job or they may be out on the streets until who knows when. Yes, “42nd Street” traffics in nostalgia but it also is a credible look at a very rough time in American social and economic history.
The Drury Lane production frequently chooses to separate itself from its historical roots. The musical orchestrations often assume a rock music beat. The costumes vary between historical styles and colorful outfits that have no sense of time. The “We’re in the Money” finale has the male dancers assuming gold-spangled dinner jackets with the chorus girls joining them in their own golden costumes. The dancing is terrific but the number is pure Las Vegas and a complete disconnect from the Depression era. Likewise, Jared Grimes’s choreography, inspired as it is in the tap numbers, has whiffs of Bob Fosse, and that’s a long way from the early 1930’s.
The show has been known for its pageantry, with eye-popping sets to set off the dancing and singing. Not so at Drury Lane, where the entire show was presented in the visual environment of the drab backstage of a Broadway theater. That robs the show of much sense of narrative movement (the action takes place in various locations in New York City and Philadelphia). Many scenes are bathed in rich rainbow colors and there is one scene on the darkened stage with performers carrying floor lamps–a poetic dream sequence, striking to look at but not a good fit for a realistic musical comedy.
Photo Credit: Brett Breiner
This revival runs about 2 hours and 10 minutes, maybe 20 minutes less than a typical musical. All the songs were retained so there was condensing elsewhere, or maybe it was just time saved by omitting much of the show’s opportunities for spectacle and pageantry.
The key roles go to Kimberly Immanuel as Peggy Sawyer and Gene Weygandt as the dictatorial director Julian Marsh. Immanuel is a slip of a girl but she can dance up a firestorm and she sings well. She is just winsome enough to give her character some heft beyond the two dimensional girl-who-steps-out-of-the-chorus cliché. Weygandt has been one of the area’s most reliable actors no matter what the type of show at hand, and he brings home the crusty Marsh handsomely and shows a potent singing voice that may surprise some audience members who know him as a straight play actor.
There is a third quality performance by Suzzanne Douglas as the diva Dorothy Brock, the character who conveniently breaks her ankle on stage so Peggy can come to the rescue. Douglas has an imperial stage presence perfect for the role and a beautiful singing voice. Phillip Attmore plays Billy Lawler, the featured tenor in Marsh’s show. Attmore shows a nice singing voice and can tap dance superbly but after some early scenes his character curiously disappears from the action, defusing what should have been a charming romantic subplot joining Peggy and Billy.
The storyline doesn’t connect very well. The individual numbers often seem isolated from each other, giving the plot the quality of a revue rather than a coherent story. Granted the show’s book is not at the “Guys and Dolls” level but the linkage between song-and-dance numbers and character and narrative is still wobbly.
The designers include Collette Pollard (scenery), Emilio Sosa (costumes), Mike Baldassari (lighting), and Ray Nardelli (sound). Roberta Duchak is the musical director. That signifies that the musicians play with the highest professionalism, the use of electronic instruments given the group a full orchestra sound. I’m not sure the arrangements are appropriate to the show, but they were played beautifully.
These criticisms may not be shared by viewers who are highly satisfied with the Drury Lane revival, or accept the revisionist staging as a small price to pay for the glorious dancing. Some people will find the staging refreshing, a successful attempt to revitalize a musical that had declined into a period piece. I think the traditional way still works best and I was distracted rather than rewarded by many of the new touches. But the production is still recommended. We don’t get a chance to luxuriate in dancing this accomplished very often, so for this boon much thanks.
“42nd Street” runs through January 7 at the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane. Performances are Wednesday at 1:30 p.m., Thursday at 1:30 and 8 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 5 and 8:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $47 to $62. Call 630 530 0111 or visit www.DruryLaneTheatre.com.
The show gets a rating of .
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