YOU DEFINITELY WANT TO MEET THESE FEET
I was led to believe, based on having seen both the original Broadway version of 42nd Street and the humongous Broadway revival, that the slight jukebox musical demanded Busby Berkeley-sized sets and a chorus of 25 toe-tapping tootsies. But as Chicago theater proves time and again, it is titanic talent and a hefty amount of heart that is the key to a great production, not its size. William Pullinsi’s scaled-down version of this backstage musical at Theatre at the Center, as with the central heroine Peggy Sawyer, starts off like a dewy-eyed innocent plucked from the chorus, and ends up being a star with enough electricity to light up Broadway.
Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble took the basic plot and the best lines from the 1933 Warner Bros. movie of the same name, added more songs from the catalog of Harry Warren and Al Dubin, and managed to turn a sticky-sweet story into a fairly meaty musical comedy (credit for most of the hysterical tongue-in-cheek dialogue must go to original screenwriters Rian James and James Seymour). The nostalgia craze which began in the 1970’s—following the drama of the rebellious 1960’s—fed into the success of the 1980 Broadway production, but that craze has never ebbed, and 42nd Street, with its knockout score and undeniable charm, will please even the most cynical of viewers, especially in this production.
It is the height of the Great Depression, and tyrannical producer Julian (“I’ll either have a live leading lady or a dead chorus girl”) Marsh (Larry Adams) is putting on the biggest show Broadway has seen in years. There are assorted zanies involved with the production, many of whom threaten to drop the asbestos curtain on Marsh’s last Great White Way nerve: Dorothy Brock (Paula Scrofano), an aging leading lady who has one foot in an orchestra pit and the other on a banana peel; Abner Dillon (Dale Benson), an old cowboy who, as Brock’s sugar daddy, has sunk a cargo of bananas into Marsh’s show, titled Pretty Lady; Bert Barry (Tom Moore) and Maggie Jones (Amy Brophy), the wisecracking writers/performers/second bananas; Peggy Sawyer (Nicole Miller), the green banana from Allentown with a trunkful of talent and more than a modicum of self-doubt; Billy Lawlor (Nathan Mittleman), lothario and leading man tenor who has his banana, um, sights set on the innocent chorine; and Pat Denning (David Besky), who used to be top banana with Brock and now sees her on the sly. When disaster strikes, can a Broadway newcomer learn a Hippodrome-sized show in 36 hours?
With little to no sets and some lengthy scene changes, it took a little while to warm up to this production. But the chorus of hoofing kids will assuage any doubts as they dynamically execute Linda Fortunato’s flabbergasting choreography; her pastiche of 1930’s tap combined with an original aesthetic is too wonderful to be called anything less than genius. The orchestra of six, led by William A. Underwood, sounded like it was the size of Paul Whiteman’s gigantic orchestra, big enough to fill Carnegie Hall. Costume Coordinator Brenda Winstead and Wig Designer Kevin Barthel are the ones who gave us a much-needed sense of time and place.
As Marsh, Adams is the glue that holds the show together; his is a more sympathetic portrayal than those who have come before, and his full, rich, high baritone is strong and swarthy. As chorus girl-turned-star Peggy, Ms. Miller captures both the quintessential girl from-the-sticks and comely new star (one exit in particular would make a sailor blush); even as she never looks close to breathing hard, her cyclonic buck and wings will take your breath away; her performance is a perfect blend of veracity, vitality, and voice. Brophy’s Eve Arden-esque delivery as Maggie is uniquely understated, but Tom Moore nails the quintessential sidekick Bert; sounding something like a bank manager in an old episode of I Love Lucy, Moore is an absolute stitch. Mr. Mittleman is the unlikeliest looking Dick Powell-type leading man, but his bravado and super sweet tenor make him fascinating to watch. Above all, Chicago favorite Abner Dillon steals every scene as Brock’s Texan admirer.
The show is a treasure trove of well-known songs which showcase the inventive lyrics of Al Dubin: “We’re in the Money,” “You’re Getting to be a Habit with Me,” “Lullaby of Broadway,” “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” and more, will not only remind older audiences of the amazing creativity that bloomed from the tough times of the 1930’s, but will hopefully inspire newer theater songsmiths that it’s OK to have perfect rhymes and a basic melody.
My theatergoing companion was a little glum before the show as it was his birthday, and he was meeting up with an age of ill repute. The visit to Theatre at the Center most definitely lifted his spirits, and believe me, that is quite a coup.
photos by Johnny Knight
Theatre at the Center in Munster, Indiana
scheduled to end on October 21, 2012
for tickets, call 219.836.3255 or visit http://www.TheatreAtTheCenter.com
for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com