By Elaine Liner
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
As huge musicals go, this one is the ding-dong daddy from Dumas. From moment one, when the deep cherry-velvet curtain rises to reveal an army of time-stepping tappers pounding the boards in perfect unison, the energy is at lift-the-roof level. By the last number, the audience is thoroughly mesmerized by the syncopated madness. On opening night, more than a few spectators at the Music Hall hoofed it down the aisles as the houselights came up.
The provenance of this dazzling stage adaptation of the 1933 movie musical goes back two decades when director-choreographer Gower Champion revived the tuneful fairy tale of the shy understudy who becomes a Broadway star. Champion, who helmed Hello, Dolly! in the 1960s, struggled to get 42nd Street in shape for its New York opening in the summer of 1980. Reviews of the out-of-town tryout had pegged it a flop.
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What happened onstage at the Winter Garden Theater the night the show finally hit Broadway is now a legendary chapter of showbiz triumph and tragedy. After a smashing performance, producer David Merrick appeared at the curtain call to announce that 60-year-old Champion had died suddenly that afternoon. The news had been withheld all day from the cast, including the leading lady, who was Champion's girlfriend at the time. As singers and dancers dissolved in tears onstage, theater critics scrambled out of the theater to file the breaking story. The next day 42nd Street was the front-page headline in every paper in the Big Apple. Great reviews and the furor over the director's death caused a box-office stampede. Champion would win posthumous Tonys, and his show would continue for 3,486 performances.
Jump ahead to 2001, the year The Producers won everything but the Nobel Peace Prize. That same season, a new production of 42nd Street opened on Broadway and was a surprise sleeper hit, earning great notices and winning a Tony for best revival. This production is still packing 'em in up there, and it has spawned the top-notch road company now playing at Fair Park.
The 1980 Gower Champion production really was something special. (I saw it.) But this new one--using some of Champion's old choreography but adding lots of new numbers by director-choreographer Randy Skinner--is even better. There's something brighter, happier, more romantic about the show this time around. The feel-good factor has increased tenfold.
Writers Mark Bramble (who also penned the 42nd Street book in 1980 and directs this new one) and Michael Stewart have freshened the plot about the wide-eyed small-town dancer, Peggy Sawyer, who gets hired for the chorus of a gooey 1933 show called Pretty Lady. When the marquee star, Dorothy Brock, breaks her ankle hours before opening night, shy Peggy is elevated to leading-lady status. Like a tap-dancing Eliza Doolittle, she gets the overnight makeover treatment. The intimidating director, Julian Marsh, orders her to be nothing less than great, telling her, in the show's most famous line, "You're going out there a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!"
In the past, Marsh has been played as a barking tyrant, about as likable as a drill instructor. Now, he's had the rough edges smoothed away, making him more matinee idol than martinet. Marsh and young Peggy get googly eyed across the footlights, and it's clear by the end that they're honeymoon-bound. As Marsh, actor Patrick Ryan Sullivan shows off a deep, expressive voice (sounding a bit like the late Phil Hartman as Troy McClure on The Simpsons) and enough graceful moves to make Peggy's crush on him believable.
As Peggy, blond Catherine Wreford looks waify, but dances with impressive power, whirling from partner to partner in the show's title number like a prettier Eleanor Powell. Blair Ross is a marvelous Dorothy Brock, turning her into a lovable diva who growls her songs (such as Act 2's "About a Quarter to Nine") with a torchy but touching vulnerability. Appropriately named Robert Spring goes boing-boing almost to the ceiling as tap-dancing tyro Billy Lawlor.
This show looks big-budget glamorous. The chorus lines glow like life-sized Kewpies in their costumes by Roger Kirk, who seems to have been inspired by the soft pastels of colorized black-and-white movies. Douglas W. Schmidt's trompe l'oeil sets depict brick-walled backstage life and the twinkly glow of Times Square at night. The platinum sparkle of costumes and set in the big dance number "We're in the Money" dazzles the eye like Cartier's window.
And, oh, the music. Harry Warren and Al Dubin's great old tunes--"You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me," "I Only Have Eyes for You," "Shadow Waltz"--grab the heart and don't let go.
Timeless stuff, this.