PPAC's "42nd Street": Those Dancing Feats

The Cast of "42nd Street"
(photo cortesy of 42nd Street National Tour)

We all know the story of 42nd Street, now being presented at PPAC as part of the show's National Tour. Anyone who's seen the original black-and-white film version with Ruby Keeler (and who hasn't?) will find much that is comfortably familiar, especially the basic libretto. It's the story of the ingenue from Allentown, Peggy Sawyer (Clara Cox), who goes on in place of the injured leading lady, diva Dorothy Brock (Kara Gibson Slocum) who breaks a leg (well, OK, so it's an ankle) and the director of the Broadway-bound show Pretty Lady, Julian Marsh (Matthew J. Taylor), who tells Peggy she's going out a youngster but coming back a star, and all that. Also featured in the large cast are characters such as the wisecracking old-timer Maggie Jones (Gerrianne Genga), male ingenue Billy Lawlor (Connor Coughlin), and second banana Annie (Kahlia Davis) as well as a huge ensemble of dancing and singing actors (almost three dozen triple threats). But you could write the plot yourself. No matter, it was never about the threadbare tongue-in-cheek storyline. It remains all about the dancing, most of it in the form of audience-pleasing tap.

The original Broadway production back in 1981 won the Tony Award for Best Musical (and Choreography) and played for more than eight years. The revival twenty years later also won a Tony for Best Revival. It's one of those shows where you can enter the theater humming the score, a pastiche of golden oldies like the title song, plus such standards as “I Only Have Eyes for You”, “Lullaby of Broadway”, and “We're in the Money”, all to the Music by Harry Warren, Lyrics by Al Dubin and book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble (who also serves as the Director of this production, and was nominated in 2001 for a Tony for Best Direction of a Revival). The songs constitute one of the first of what would come to be called “jukebox musicals”, assembled from several films, some of them shoehorned into the score without any real context. The creative team boasts several established professionals, with fine Set Design originally conceived by Beowulf Boritt, fabulous Costume Design by Roger Kirk (seemingly hundreds of them) and expert Lighting Design by Ken Billington.

All of the performers are fine, with wonderful precision and synchronization, especially in the second act that makes no pretense of any plot to speak of but presents one showstopper after another . It's the kind of all-singing all-dancing ensemble show that easily conforms to the huge venue that is PPAC. The only disappointment was the number “Shuffle Off to Buffalo”, usually performed in the sleeping car by all the chorines, but rather anemically set in this version. Coincidentally, this critic got to converse years ago with both Michael Stewart and Ruby Keeler on a transatlantic crossing on the QE2, subsequently sitting right behind Keeler at a performance of this show on Broadway. Both were extremely gracious and eager to share memories of their respective roles in the history of the film and play. They would surely feel the same way towards this production.

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