42nd Street, book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Al Dubin. Choreographed by Michael Raine. Directed by Tim Fort.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"All you need to know is they keep musicians in a pit!"
Jeffrey Pew and the chorus; photo provided
Ten of the funniest lines and situations exist in a 1980 stage musical version of a 1932 film version of a 1930 novel, all called "42nd Street." In a show that last two hours and twenty minutes, but that feels like no more than an hour in its current production at the Weston Playhouse, that is a pretty high average for the best that Broadway can produce. Even a variant of the clumsy and funny pronouncement made by a seriously difficult producer/director named Julian Marsh - "You’re going out there a kid, but you’ve got to come back a star!" - that Peggy Sawyer’s girlfriends toss off at her a moment later - "Get out there and show ‘em what we can do" comes across the footlights as something fresh and remarkable. That’s what a good show in a good production, a classy combination, can bring to you.
The talented people at the Weston Playhouse in Weston, Vermont, have converted their not overly large stage into an empire of Broadway possibilities. The producers have hired the most talented people in show business, dressed them in perfect style, taught them difficult dance routines, gotten them the best musicians in the region to underscore their songs and dances, given them all excellent production values and dropped them on an unsuspecting audience that is having the best time of their lives, at least from what I could see and hear. This may not be the most wonderful revival in this region of a classic musical, but it is the most fun and the most must-see of that group of shows. I don’t care what it takes, you have to get a ticket and see this show. It is that refreshingly new.
Peggy Sawyer from Allentown, PA is played by Julie Kavanagh in her Weston debut. She plays sassy, saucy, serious, sad and sober with equal strength. She dances faster and finer than her compatriots. She sings with a voice that has more power than beauty and when she’s done with a tune you want her to sing it again. As the girl who gets the chance of a lifetime it would seem that she is really getting it here, on this stage, herself. Her sweet enthusiasm is pure and golden. Her final moments truly touching in their sincerity. Kavanagh could easily become the next big star on the Great White Way.
As her puppet-master director, Marsh, we have David Bonnano who manages to fuse an intractable personality with a softness we don’t usually see in such a role. He moves back and forth between these two elements of character to bring us a much more rounded character than usual, and certainly not a caricature of a certain type of theater personality. It is beautiful to watch him shift that narrow focus and present a different side of this entrepreneur. He sings "Lullaby of Broadway with personal humor and an intense meaning as he reflects backward to move his future star forward. Bonnano does lovely, lovely work.
Billy Lawlor, the very tall, generous and loving "juvenile" of the play is played by Jeffrey Pew. He is a Gene Nelson type who dances like a dream, sings with gusto and a fine note-accuracy and who makes his character a definite stand-out just by being so handsome in the part. Johanna Schlitt takes on the almost thankless role of Anytime Annie, one of the perpetual chorus girls. Made memorable by Ginger Rogers in the film, Schlitt approaches the part differently, without the odd pretense Rogers gives it, and makes her version of Annie Reilly (her real name) a girl with a hurt and a heart and a happy offering to make at her own expense as these "goals" often go.
Dorothy Stanley, who has worked in every minor role in this show starting in 1980 takes on the role of Maggie, co-author of the show "Pretty Lady" that this show presents in rehearsal and performance, and it’s character-role star. What Stanley has learned in all of those incarnations she brings with her to the Weston stage and she is some singer, some tap-dancer and some actress. A walking piece of history she presents her role as if it is the most important part and when she is singing, dancing or acting, it really is her show.
Wonderful work is turned in here by David Benoit as Abner Dillon, the show’s backer, Mark Chmiel as Pat Denning (written down but not out; and so not so important to us) is just what is needed. Felicity Stiverson as Phyllis and Clara Cox as Lorraine are terrific!
Dorothy Brock, star of Stage and Screen, leading lady of this show, is felled by an accidental (or not) broken ankle. She is nicely represented by actress Susan Haefner who is no stranger to this show either.
On the technical end of the production is a trio of excellent designers. Howard C. Jones has designed the sets, much darker than normal and much better to serve the play in this jewel box setting. Karen Ann Ledger’s costumes are stunning and picture perfect for each character. Jack Mehler’s lighting accents all of the perfect moments and provides the proper exposure to characters, choruses and the emotional highs and lows of the play.
Michael Raine’s choreography is flashy, fresh and frequently flamboyant in all the right ways. A lover of tap-dancing, like me, can find no greater pleasure than in the solid sounds of this show’s choreo-movement. The dancing is sometimes so precise that it is what we would expect of a production that rehearsed only the dances for five weeks. Raine’s ballet work is a fine rendition of Broadway dance and even a picture of life in the 1930s.
There is a seamlessness between Raine’s contribution and Tim Fort’s direction of the play. Characters are better defined than usual and relationships become the key to the core of the show. Sidelong glances define interest better than dialogue in Fort’s presentation. Semi-danced exits exist in Fort’s theatrical world and breaking into song becomes a natural means of expression rather than a separable interlude. This is wonderful work on the director’s part and should inspire more such work from him in the future.
My heart is tap-dancing as I type these words. My feet are keeping time with my fingers on the keys. My mind keeps replaying musical modes and the words of Al Dubin and the others keep racing across my vision of things. If I could cancel the week and just see this show again and again, that would be heaven on earth. Perfection like this doesn’t last and doesn’t come often.
David Bonnano and Julie Kavanagh; photo provided
Shuffle Off to Buffalo girls; photo provided
42nd Street plays through August 24 at the Weston Playhouse, on the green on Route 100 in Weston, Vermont. For information and tickets call the box office at 802-824-5288 or go on line to www.westonplayhouse.org.