Friday, July 13, 2018

42nd Street at Theatre Under the Stars

After skipping last year, Richard and I returned to Malkin Bowl last night for our annual pilgrimage to Theatre Under the Stars. The production we were seeing was the classic Depression-set toe-tapper 42nd Street, one of Richard's all-time favourites. Despite the era in which it is set, 42nd Street was only first produced on Broadway in 1980, directed by the legendary Gower Champion, who dropped dead on opening night; and in terms of current trends on the Great White Way, it is interesting to note that 42nd Street is both a jukebox musical and an adaptation of a movie. That would, of course, be the famous 1933 film directed by Lloyd Bacon (based on the novel by Bradford Ropes), and with its eye-popping choreography for the camera by Busby Berkley. Those routines are hard to reproduce on stage, but nevertheless one of the signature pleasures of watching this musical remains its mostly all-tap dancing, and in this TUTS production veteran choreographer Shelley Stewart Hunt finds a number of innovative ways to showcase the hoofing chops of director Robert McQueen's very talented cast.

The musical's star-is-born plot concerns would-be chorine Peggy Sawyer (Paige Fraser), who after initially missing her audition finds herself cast at the last minute in director Julian Marsh's (Andrew Cownden) latest blockbuster entertainment, Pretty Lady. The work is meant to be a vehicle for the aging star, Dorothy Brock (a very fine Janet Gigliotti), whose mobster boyfriend is bankrolling the production, but who is also seeing Pat Denning (Matthias Falvai) on the side. When Dorothy injures herself in an out-of-town tryout, she blames Peggy. Marsh immediately fires her and announces that the production will close and that audience members will have the cost of their tickets (a whopping $4.40) refunded, a nice meta-theatrical moment that brings us to intermission. In the second act, Peggy's fellow chorus girls (all splendid, especially Jolene Bernadino as the polkadot-wearing Annie) hatch a plan to avoid unemployment and the bread lines, scheming with the show's junior tenor lead, Billy Lawlor (the velvety-voiced Blake Sartin) to get Peggy rehired as the show's replacement lead. Peggy has only 36 hours to learn all of Dorothy's songs, dialogue, and dances, with Marsh reminding her at every turn that the fate of the show, 100 jobs, and a one-hundred thousand dollar investment are resting on her tiny shoulders.

Of course, she triumphs and the climactic title number is, in McQueen's and his designers' hands, a rousing spectacle of eye-popping colour (the costumes are by Christina Sinosich) and razzmatazz movement. Interestingly, the lyrics of "42nd Street," the song, are all about the mixing of different classes and social demographics ("where the underworld can meet the elite") and in a little bit of subtle stage business off to the side, McQueen makes it clear that Marsh still depends on mob money to make the confection-within-a-confection that we are watching fly. And while Marsh is a mostly benign and soft-hearted impresario who just wants to make the best musical he can, it is interesting to consider his bullying of Peggy in light of our present #MeToo era. No matter their singing and dancing talents, the chorus girls in Pretty Lady fundamentally owe their jobs to their abilities to match that description, and whether or not they are able to eat very much depends on the whims of men like Marsh and Dorothy's mobster boyfriend. Which is why the scene that is most affecting for me in the show is the one in which Dorothy, hobbling but now happily married to Pat, confers with Peggy in her dressing room just before the curtain of Pretty Lady is set to rise. Here we get not the usual Hollywood scene of bitter female rivalry, but rather a tenderly shared duet ("About a Quarter to Nine") between two assured professionals.

As always, the TUTS orchestra was in excellent form, with the hard-working music director and conductor Christopher King here doing double duty as the on-stage pianist Oscar. And while I missed hearing the musical's usual penultimate number, "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" (despite it being listed in the program), the production--and the splendid open-air summer evening--more than lived up to my expectations.


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