The toe-tapping triumph 42nd Street dances into Auburn’s Merry-Go-Round Playhouse
By James MacKillop
Precision. Grace. Captivation. High gloss. Finesse. Let’s get to these words right away because we have to haul them out when Auburn’s Merry- Go-Round Playhouse hires director-choreographer Brett Smock to run a show. The Harry Warren-Al Dubin blockbuster 42nd Street is not just a musical that includes dance numbers. That’s like saying a Fourth of July celebration includes fireworks. The show is about dance. When the allusively named ingenue Peggy Sawyer is introduced, her ambitious footwork does more to define her character than the way she looks or what she says. So when the curtain rises only a yard high to reveal rows of tapping feet we expect and we get perfection.
There are 17 dance numbers in all, 10 of which call for the ensemble or at least the female chorus. To a degree we put up with the familiar fable-like plot line because we know it sets up another spectacle. It’s impossible to rank them: Anytime Annie and the ensemble in “There’s a Sunny Side to Every Situation,” “Lullaby of Broadway” with theater producer Julian March, or “We’re in the Money” with the troupe atop giant dimes the size of drums with the 1933 Lady Liberty up above.
As conceived by Gower Champion in 1980 the production numbers in 42nd Street also represent a counter-history of the American musical theater. Counter, that is, to the Agnes de Mille-Jerome Robbins modern dance tradition that started with Oklahoma! and culminated with West Side Story and continues to be dominant. In reshaping the classic 1933 Ruby Keeler
movie, Champion was celebrating what had been cast aside, not only Busby Berkeley but also the vanished traditions of vaudeville and even minstrel shows. While 42nd Street is too effervescent to ever be thought of as a history lesson, as the dance numbers unfold there’s a strange frisson of recognition, like finding the kids from your high school yearbook are still walking around as teenagers.
The show is also a tribute to composer Harry Warren (1893-1981), whose name no one remembers even though he had more hit songs than Irving Berlin. What you see is the Broadway show he would have written, given the chance. The original 1933 movie, put together by Warner Brothers during the most disheartening year of the Great Depression, is scruffier and more hard-bitten than the 1980 rewrite. It also contains only five songs, all of which are retained. The rest are culled from Warren’s abundant output, including a stage rival to the movie Gold Diggers of 1933. He kept going, mostly contributing to forgettable movies. Late in life, Warren, born Salvatore Guaragna, also wrote “That’s Amore!” All of Warren’s songs for the show exude that smiling-through-the-grime optimism of really terrible times, which can seem merely sunny when revisited in prosperity. In the original, no one had such gorgeous costumes (thanks to Travis Lope) or such straight teeth. Warren’s strategic employment of the minor key, however, retains some of the nearly forgotten dread. When Al Dubin’s lines begin, “Can’t you hear/ Those dancing fee-yeet. . . .” it is still an emotional reveille.
To say that the book for 42nd Street is filled with cliches is to miss the point. It created all those cliches, just as Hamlet bristles with all those familiar lines. The template for the action is a now-forgotten novel by Bradford Ropes, hammered into a film script by Rian James and then reframed by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble. The result is a disarming earnestness completely devoid of camp, as if retelling a classic children’s story such as “The Ugly Duckling” or “The Princess and the Pea.” Like them, the show is indeed a fable, on a subject more used to cynicism these days.
At the center of the story is little Peggy Sawyer from Allentown, Pa., new to New York City, hoping to break in but usually excluded for naiveté or clumsiness. Brunette Julie Kavanagh, a graduate of the Cincinnati Conservatory and new to MGR, bursts with unexpressed energy as Peggy, her feet taking to dance steps as if from longing. In her characterization, innocence becomes enticing. She runs into (literally) an over-the-hill broad, Dorothy Brock (Rebecca Spencer), whom a Ziegfeld-esque Julian March (Christopher Carl) has cast in the lead of Pretty Lady because she’s financed by her dimwitted sugar daddy Abner (Geoff Howard).
Dorothy is not an unrewarding role as it might appear, as she leads in four numbers, including the solo “Getting to be a Habit with Me.” Rebecca Spencer, also new to MGR, brings extensive national credits but appears very much in her prime.
Appropriately a boastful harridan in the early scenes, her Dorothy later bonds with Peggy in the duet “About a Quarter to Nine.”
As Julian March, Christopher Carl brings a familiar face to MGR; he appeared there as the fanatical Jouvert in Les Miserables and the cheeky queen director Roger DeBris in The Producers. He’s in high-status mode here, looking more like a diplomat than a show-biz manipulator, but his speeches on Peggy’s responsibilities to the rest of the company and her need to come back a star sound positively Churchillian.
Male supporting characters are allowed to look and sound good but the script does not allow them to come off so well. The first guy Peggy runs into is the overly familiar Billy (Zak Edwards), who warbles the duet “Young and Healthy” with her. As Edwards flashes an impressive tenor, worthy of a lead role, he puts the right polish on his solo, the big production number, “Dames.”
While Marsh’s show might rely on Dorothy Brock’s sweet-talking Abner, her heart belongs to a smooth-talking fellow, Pat Denning (Mark Thomas Epperson). Curiously, although Epperson’s handsome Denning might look like the romantic lead (not Julian Marsh), the script allows for some dangerous ambiguity as he also becomes aware of Peggy’s irresistible charms.
The two self-described character supporting players are the songwriting team of Maggie Jones (Becky Barta) and Bert Berry (Brian Runbeck), both skilled scenestealers. Barta gets her licks in “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” and Runbeck can squeeze a laugh from the slightest lines. Winning also is tiny Kendra Madigan, a signature performer in Smock productions, as Anytime Annie, the role that made Ginger Rogers famous in the movie.
Director-choreographer Smock might be calling the shots, but he has so much to work with. Corinne Aquilina’s vibrant direction of the 10-player orchestra brings alive a 78-year-old score. Travis Lope’s costumes, Czerton Lim’s scenic designs and Bob Frame’s lighting bring the professionalism that will launch the Finger Lakes Musical Theater Festival next year. z This production runs through Aug. 17.
See Times Table for information.