42nd Street: in the right neighbourhood, but not at the exact address

Paige Fraser and Blake Sartin dance in the Theatre Under the Stars production of 42nd Street.

At its best, the TUTS production of 42nd Street is ecstatic. (Photo of Paige Fraser and Blake Sartin by Lindsay Elliott)

Yes, 42ndStreet will give you goosebumps—it gave me goosebumps—but that’s because it’s manipulating the heck out of you.

In the book, which was written by Michael Stewart and Michael Bramble, it’s 1933. Peggy Sawyer, who has just stepped off the bus from Allentown, Pennsylvania, races in—late—to audition for the new musical Pretty Lady. The chorus parts have all been cast, but gosh Peggy is talented! And she’s so pretty! And nice! And Billy Lawlor, the juvenile lead, already wants to date her! Does Peggy stand a chance of making it into Pretty Lady? Would she be crazy to dream—holy tap shoes!—of Broadway stardom? Guess.

There’s nothing wrong with clichés per se; I’m big fan of camp. But there is something wrong with predictability and 42ndStreet carries a heavy load of that. There is only one surprising plot turn in the book. It’s a good one, but it’s not enough.

To give material like this any chance of success, you’ve got to make sure that its surfaces are all polished to a blinding gleam: that the pace never relents, that the production numbers are dazzling, and that the stock characters are brought to life by prodigiously charismatic performers.

Under Robert McQueen’s direction, this Theatre Under the Stars production comes surprisingly close to getting a lot of this right—especially considering that it’s a largely amateur undertaking.

Andrew Cownden, one of the two pros in the cast, plays Julian Marsh, the director of Pretty Lady. Marsh is notoriously tough—at one point, he tells the starry-eyed Peggy that she’ll never amount to more than a speck of dust on the Broadway stage—but here’s the twist: underneath his gruff exterior, Marsh is still crazy about the Great White Way. In a couple of the most touching moments in the show, he sings and dances in the empty theatre, with only the ghost light for company.

Cownden finds the heart in this without ever sacrificing the tetchiness. And he manages to spout Marsh’s clichés—including “You’re going out there a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!”—with just the right combination of sincerity and stylistic spin.

Janet Gigliotti, the only other Equity member in the company, plays Dorothy Brock, the female lead in Pretty Lady. Gigliotti has the best voice in the cast—warm and assured. There’s strength in Gigliotti’s restraint and authenticity, although Dorothy as written is more of a diva than she shows us here.

Paige Fraser, who’s playing Peggy, is still in school at Studio 58 and, as an emerging performer, she offers a solid performance although she never quite convinced me that her Peggy was ready to be a star.

The chorus is generally strong and, under Christopher King’s musical direction, the women offer particularly pleasing harmonies in “Shadow Waltz”. Playing Anytime Annie, Jolene Bernardino is a standout because of the sheer clarity of everything she does.

Brian Ball’s set features an unfortunately tacky scrim with “Pretty Lady” painted on it, but also contains images of striking simplicity—the gold proscenium arch and sparkling stars that support the showstopper “We’re in the Money”, for instance. Christine Sinosich’s costumes, which are almost all strong, except for a stylin’ coat that’s visiting from the early 60s, are also at their playful shiniest in that song.

Director McQueen has made a couple of odd decisions. He starts the show extremely slowly, for instance. Starting with the stage manager, characters wander on and off the stage for long minutes. Sometimes they’re more animated, and sometimes less. We can’t hear a word they’re saying. Then the overture kicks in and we get more of the same, but with music. Act 1 also ends with a whimper. These are bold choices, but they don’t work.

McQueen’s production is always deliberate, though, never sloppy. And, in a show that’s all about tap dancing, choreographer Shelley Stewart Hunt delivers the goods. There’s a sequence in “Lullaby of Broadway” in which all of the dancers starts off facing the back of the rehearsal hall. Then, as Peggy weaves her way through them, they turn around, line by line, until they’re all facing front, tapping their feet off. It’s ecstatic.

That’s one of the moments that gave me goosebumps. Another was when Colin Humphrey, who plays Pretty Lady’s dance captain, arrived in his street shoes and slipped on his taps.

I’m a sucker for this sort of thing. But I want it to be fuller.

42ndSTREET Music by Harry Warrens. Lyrics by Al Dubin. Book by Michael Stewart and Michael Bramble. Based on the novel by Bradford Ropes. Directed by Robert McQueen. A Theatre Under the Stars production. At Malkin Bowl on Wednesday, July 18. Continues in rep until August 17.

Tickets.

NEVER MISS A REVIEW: To get links to my reviews plus the best of international theatre coverage, sign up for FRESH SHEET, my free weekly e-newsletter.

And, if you want to keep independent criticism alive in Vancouver, check out my Patreon page. Newspapers are dying and arts journalism is often the first thing they cut. Fight back!

 

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

Comments

  1. hey Colin … we just came back from this (Sunday night ) … N has done this one a few times inTokyo … our feelings/assesments were about the same as yours … it WAS a lovely night , however, so add that in, and it was worth the (expensive for us) cost … Duncan

Leave a Reply

Sign up—free!—

YEAH, THIS IS ANNOYING. But my theatre newsletter is fun!

Sign up and get curated international coverage + local reviews every Thursday!