Think you’ve seen “42nd Street” before? Not with jazz-funk orchestrations and a rock drum set and a truly diverse cast, you haven’t. Not with an ABBA-like synthesizer underpinning “We’re in the Money.” Not with echoes of “A Chorus Line.” Not with a “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” that feels filtered through Chance the Rapper. Not with a line of chorus girls dancing off to the Gypsy Tea Kettle as if they were the opening credits to “Shaft.” Not with choreography far closer to Savion Glover than Gower Champion.
Yes, I’m talking “42nd Street,” the retro stage musical that premiered in 1980 but was firmly rooted in the aesthetic and gestalt of the 1933 movie about Peggy Sawyer, a toe-tappin’ newbie from Allentown, Pa., who wants nothing more than to star in a musical comedy directed by the patriarchal Julian Marsh, a surrogate daddy for every girl on the line, all dreaming their Broadway dreams and hoping the glittering gulch doesn’t rip out their hearts. The show famed for its massive chorus of dancing feet: traditionally staged so, at one point or another, you see only toes tapping, as a drop cuts off the rest of the women’s bodies.
Forget all that. If you’re thinking in terms of conceptual innovation, director Michael Heitzman’s production, which features truly counterintuitive choreography by Jared Grimes and radical musical direction from Roberta Duchak, is the best show I’ve seen at Drury Lane in 20 years. It’s absolutely not to be missed. The idea is fresh and strong enough that it should coax some Broadway producers out to the western ’burbs, where they’ll be thrilled not just by all the free parking but for a whole new contemporary and affordable way into this popular title.
Here’s the root of my enthusiasm: If you remove this show from its period and turn its corny comic ballads into torch songs and orchestrate some numbers like they were penned by a rapper, some l
Everything in this piece — even the dumb comic plot involving the old star who must give way for her successor — thus becomes emblematic of what artists risk for a career in show business, and it reveals that nothing has really changed. And I include the routine harassment of women in that. It is hard to overstate how much the comic scenes have morphed here: There still are some laughs, but Heitzman dissects the business we call show with just the right mix of deep affection and cold-eyed realism.
In the “42nd Street” productions I’ve seen over the years, I’ve encountered more terrifying Julians than the one played by Gene Weygandt, and I’ve seen Peggys grasp more relentlessly for the limelight more than Kimberly Immanuel’s. That is not a criticism of these two fine performers — the production is going for something entirely different. Heitzman is focusing on what Julian is saying, and the complexity of what he represents: that weird blend of power and affection that has proved to be so toxic of late in the entertainment industry, even though Weygandt’s Julian is not judged, and even loved. Immanuel’s Peggy Sawyer is not necessarily that great, just in the right place at the moment she’s needed. Which, as with every actor, is the way these things usually go down.
So you have all that going on even as Phillip Attmore, who is simply sensational without ever being fully likable, taps up a storm as Billy Lawlor. Dorothy Brock is played by Suzzanne Douglas as something entirely different from merely a fading old star, just as Donica Lynn vocally transforms the playwright Maggie Jones, typically a functionary of the comic plot. There are potent racial themes in this production, and the cast embraces them all. Frankly, it’s a bit like you’re watching Broadway confront the complex history of the production of musical comedy — with all its tropes and assumptions — right before your eyes.
All of this is achieved while still delivering the flash and pizazz audiences expect from the title without worrying about rules or expectations. The future possibilities of this idea danced in my head: With a bigger budget, an extension of the conceptual notions more fully into the design and yet more fascinating casting choices, you could easily imagine this show making a case for itself as a backstage musical with the emotional heft of “A Chorus Line,” even though no personal confessionals are allowed to undermine the moral obligation to the audience.
The most famous scene of “42nd Street” involves Julian rushing to the station and trying to tempt the fired-by-mistake Peggy to come back to the show, understand that her Allentown means death in anonymity and turn herself into a star. She’s supposed to be reluctant for a second, but then the glamour of Broadway takes over.
Here, not quite so much. She goes back. It’s what she does. Jobs are at stake. But there is a cost, as paid by generations of singers and dancers who work on and around The Deuce. The lullaby of Broadway can keep a woman awake at night.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “42nd Street” (4 stars)
When: Through Jan. 7
Where: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $47-$62 (meal packages available) at 630-530-0111 and www.drurylane.com
ike they belong in the 1970s, and allow the characters to float through the decades as it were, then the show’s metaphor deepens. Instead of being about a Broadway of 1933, and thus having appeal mostly for nostalgists and purists, it becomes the story of every fragile artist from every fraught era. For, lest we forget, they all were fraught