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A CurtainUp Review

42nd Street
Come on along and listen to The lullaby of Broadway.
The hip hooray and ballyhoo,
The lullaby of Broadway.
The rumble of a subway train,
The rattle of the taxis

---from one of a half dozen "standards" from the granddaddy of song-and-dance musicals, 42nd Street

The new 42nd Street, like the 1980 original, is indeed a lullaby of Broadway -- a Broadway of bouncy, buoyant musicals with dancing that didn't look like pumped-up aerobics class routines and songs you couldn't stop singing long after the curtain went down. The original production tapped its way through 3,485 performances, first at the Winter Garden and later at the St. James (currently home to another ode to Broadway musicals, The Producers). The top ticket price was $30.

It remains to be seen if the 2001 production, with a top ticket price of $90, will match or beat that record. It's certainly got a lot going in its favor:
  • A wonderfully apt location right on 42nd Street in the four-year-old Ford Center which, in an architectural May-December marriage, incorporated the facades of the long closed Lyric and Apollo theaters.

  • A large, high energy cast (55) to bring back the thrill of a stage filled with high-kicking chorus girls and boys. Kate Levering gives her own career-making performance as Peggy Sawyer, the ingenue from Allentown who gets her big chance to break out of the chorus line when leading lady Dorothy Brock twists her ankle. While Dorothy's stardom seems to have lost some of its luster even before her break-a-leg exit from Pretty Baby (the show-within-the show), Christine Ebersole who plays the part is very much a star from the moment she comes on stage, a vision in white and fox fur trimming. The chorus, the show's real drawing card, also features numerous star turns, notably from David Elder as Peggy's would-be boyfriend Billy Lawler and Michael Arnold as the dance captain.

  • Three new songs to add to the cornucopia of Harry Warren-Al Dubin standards. These include the torchy "I Only Have Eyes For You" sung by Ebersole. The entire score is tunefully orchestrated by Philip Lang, with Todd Ellison leading the pit orchestra and Billy Stritch providing on-stage piano accompaniment.

  • Gower Champion's unbeatable choreography re-staged by Randy Skinner, who was a dance assistant in the 1980 production. Many of the dances metamorphose from one configuration to another for double impact. There's the incredibly graceful "Shadow Waltz" . . . the gasp-inducing circle of mirror in "Dames". . . the giant silver dollars for "We're In the Money". . . the spectacular act one finale of the opening night of Pretty Baby. . .the stage transformed into three tiers of neon-lit dressing rooms for "Sunny Side of Every Situation". . . not to mention the variations of the title song. The additional songs did seem to require a few cuts elswhere which avid fans of the 1980s version will no doubt miss.

  • Eye-popping sets, costumes and lighting that make for a show so lavish that it could easily describe itself with the title of one of its catchiest tunes, "We're In the Money".

With this revival and the new monster hit, The Producers, opening within a few weeks of each other, comparisons are bound to be made. 42nd Street, like The Producers started as a film of the same name, though its vintage is much older. It goes back to 1933, with The Gold Diggers of 1933, 1934 and 1935 as its source. It also affords musical theater buffs a grand time picking out the dance numbers inspired by previous musical hits. Both have Busby Berkeley style tilting mirror production numbers. But for all the similarities these are two very different shows. Besides one being a first-time around musical and the other a revival, they differ vastly in emphasis. The Producers has some extravagantly staged numbers, but is a comedy in which the book drives the songs and dances. 42nd Street, on the other hand, is all about great dancing and songs, with book and cleverness taking a back seat.

This brings us to the downside of the generally splendid new revival. The book which was dated in 1980 is, despite some changes, even more so now. The play elements seem not merely lead-ins but interruptions of the singing and dancing. For the most part Michael Cumpsty seems miscast as the larger-than-life director Julian Marsh whose future rests on Pretty Baby being a hit (in the film he was ailing; in the stage version he's lost big bucks in the stock market crash). He's taller and handsomer than Jerry Ohrbach, yet Ohrbach captured the director's biting manner as this actor does not. I don't remember Ohrbach standing around or stalking stiffly on and off the stage quite as much. In fairness to Cumpsty, whose work I admired in another musical, 1776, as well as in Copenhagen and Electra, Marsh's bombastic pep talks would probably cause the same snickers no matter who played them. When he is given a chance to sing in the latter part of the second act, he does catch fire. In fact, he's like the kid who's thrilled because he's finally been asked to play with the gang. He's not a great singer, but he has a nice resonant voice. By the time the finale rolls around his Marsh has emerged as a man who has you hoping that he won't be left with that lonely backstage ghost light but that he may just "get the girl".

While I'm on the book-caused shortcomings, those two terrific performers, Mary Testa and Jonathan Freeman, also tend to stand around too much. Testa has been directed to push too hard for the laughs, while Freeman is something of a cipher. Unlike Cumpsty, these two do get some fun ensemble numbers throughout.

I suppose Mark Bramble, one of 42nd Street's co-writers who is now directing, could have given the script a more updated treatment. But as the man who has shepherded this quintessential song-and-dance show through successful revivals throughout the world he probably has a point in contenting himself with minor tampering and building up the glitz-appeal of the staging. It makes for a show that offsets any weaknesses with big-time nostalgia for the works of grandiose show biz figures like Marsh -- men whose grandiosity made Broadway the street of dreams known as the Great White Way.

Book (based on the novel Bradford Ropes: Michael Stewart & Mark Bramble
Source material: 1930s movies including 42nd Street, Dames and The Gold Diggers Music: Harry Warren
Lyrics: Al Dubin
Director: Mark Bramble
Choreographer: Randy Skinner

Cast (In order of speaking appearance): Michael Arnold (Andy Lee), Mary Testa (Maggie Jones), Jonathan Freeman (Bert Barry), Allen Fitzpatrick (Mac), Catherine Wreford (Phyllis), Megan Sikora (Lorraine), Tamlyn Brook Shusterman (Diane), Mylinda Hull (Annie), Amy Dolan (Ethel), David Elder (Billy Lawlor), Kate Levering (Peggy Sawyer), Billy Stritch (Oscar the onstage pianist), Michael Cumpsty (Julian Marsh), Christine Ebersole (Dorothy Brock), Michael McCarty (Abner Dillon), Richard Muenz (Pat Denning) -- ensemble (total cast of 55).
Set Design: Douglas W. Schmidt
Lighting Design: Paul Gallo
Costume Design: Roger Kirk
Sound Design: Peter Fitzgerald
Musical Director/Conductor: Todd Ellison
Musical adaptation, arrangement & additionl orchestrations: Donald Johnston
Orchestrations: Philip Lang
Ford Center for the Performing Arts, 213 W. 42d St. (7th/8th Avs) 307-4100
From April 4, 2001; opening May 2, 20001
Mon - Sat at 8pm; Wed & Sat at 2pm-- $20-$90 thereafter
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on April 27 performance
Last performance: 1/02/05
Musical Numbers
Act One
Audition/ Andy Lee and Ensemble
Young and Healthy / Billy Lawlor and Peggy Sawyer
Shadow Waltz / Maggie Jones, Dorothy Brock and Ensemble
Go Into Your Dance/Maggie, Annie, Peggy, Phyllis, Lorraine and Andy
You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me/Dorothy Billy, Peggy, Ensemble
Getting Out Of Town/FullCompany
Dames/Billy and Men
Keeping Young and Beautiful/Maggie, Bert Barry and Girls
Dames (continued)/Full Company
I Only Have Eyes For You/Dorothy
I Only Have Eyes For You (Reprise)/Billy and Girls
We're In the Money/Annie, Peggy, Lorraine, Phyllis and Ensemble
Finale/Dorothy and Compay
Act Two

Overture / Orchestra
Sunny Side of Every Situation/Annie and Ensemble
Lullaby of Broadway/Julian Marsh and full company
Getting Out Of Town(Reprise)/Bert, Maggie, FullCompany
Montage/Jlian, Andy, Peggy and Ensemble
About a Quarter to Nine/Dorothy and Peggy
Overture to Pretty Lady Opening/Orchestra
With Plenty of Money and You / Peggy and Men
Shuffle Off to Buffalo/ Bert, Maggie, Annie and Girls
42nd Street / Peggy, Billy and Ensemble
42nd Street (Reprise) Julian
Finale Full Company
Additional lyrics by Johnny Mercer and Mort Dixon

The Broadway Theatre Archive

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