Ford Center, NYC - April 2001
Reviewed by John Kenrick
Naughty! Gaudy! Bawdy! Sporty! And absolutely magnificent!
All the self-appointed experts who said "Its too soon to revive 42nd Street it hasn't got a chance" can tuck in their napkins and start roasting crows. From the moment the curtain rises on a hundred dancing feet, this production is one of the the biggest, dizziest, tappiest, grandest and most shameless musical comedy treats I have ever seen on Broadway.
Bigger and better than the original 1980 production? It sure is! I saw that one half a dozen times, so I know what I'm talking about. Instead of a mere reenactment, this 42nd Street expands and enhances Gower Champion's masterpiece. With more than fifty in the cast, the sheer size of it is enough to blow you away. But size (you should pardon the cliché) doesn't matter half as much as technique, and this production is in the hands of masterful musical theatre pros who know how to give a classic the fresh energy of a new hit. Even if you've seen this show before, you're in for some pleasant surprises.
Randy Skinner has re-created Champion's brilliant choreography in productions all around the globe. This time around, along with meticulous but lively stagings of Champion's classics ("We're in the Money," Lullaby of Broadway," etc.) Skinner adds some rousing new routines of his own. "Keep Young and Beautiful" has the ladies of the chorus form geometric patterns on the stage as a massive mirror descends from above to give us a bird's-eye view a thrilling Busby Berkeley homage that must have Champion's ghost wondering why he didn't think of it. "With Plenty of Money and You" is an affectionate tribute to Eleanor Powell's flashy "tapping with the boys" MGM production numbers, and Champion's classic "42nd Street" tap ballet gets a new finish that brings the chorus cascading over a massive staircase. Finally, there is a post-curtain call tap extravaganza that is one of the grandest spectacles I have ever seen on a Broadway stage. And to think it is all done with human beings dancing their hearts out no hydraulics, helicopters or chandeliers!
Kate Levering, who was dynamite as Zaneeta in last season's Music Man, scores a total knockout as Peggy Sawyer, the newcomer who goes on for the star and becomes one herself. Her lightning fast steps and radiant personality had the audience rooting for her to "go out there a youngster" and "come back a star." Christine Ebersole is perfection as the bitchy diva, her marvelous soprano and flawless comic timing making this the best performance of her Broadway career. She laid 'em low with "I Only Have eyes for You" and the underrated charmer "About a Quarter to Nine." Jonathan Freeman is a hoot as the comic composer, with the hilarious Mary Testa winning roars as his irrepressible partner. As Billy Lawlor, the handsome David Elder's energetic dancing (catch those flips!) and death-defying high notes threatened to steal the show.
Some people may complain that Michael Cumpsty is too young to play the demanding director Julian Marsh, but they are dead wrong. Fresh from his triumph in Copenhagen, he has all the dramatic power the role requires plus an added element of vulnerability. Much as I loved Jerry Orbach in the original production, Cumsty makes this martinet more of a human being. The scene where he uses passionate kisses to teach Peggy to express love ("Jim, it was grand of you to come!") here becomes a showstopper a tribute to Cumpsty's interpretation and to a script that has never gotten its full due.
Mark Bramble (who co-authored that script with the late, great Michael Stewart) is on hand as director this time, infusing the show with a refreshing vitality. This time, more than ever, 42nd Street is about the love its characters have for the theatre. It is a love Peggy and the kids in the chorus freely celebrate, and that Julian Marsh cannot deny. The musical theater was never quite this fairy-tale perfect, but what a joy to pretend that it was. Theater lovers will find themselves wiping aside a surprise tear or two thanks to Mr. Bramble and company.
The Dodgers can be proud of assembling such an inspired creative team. Douglas Schmidt's luscious and amazingly fluid sets are full of witty touches (don't miss the "stagehands" playing poker up in the rigging). Roger Kirk's costumes provide the requisite razzle dazzle for extravaganzas like "We're in the Money," and his street clothes are a rainbow of pastels that few 1930's actors could have hoped to afford. Paul Gallo again proves that he is one of the finest lighting designers in the business. Oh, the joy of seeing lighting that calls attention to the show instead of itself! Todd Ellison and the orchestra are a joy, especially after enduring the insulting half size pit band in this season's Follies. If you want to get your money's worth, stick around after the performance and enjoy the toe-tapping play out music this orchestra really kicks!
At the preview I attended, I sat next to a high school girl from Ohio who was seeing her first Broadway show. A devoted performer in high school and community productions, she was blown away by the eye-popping show and the uproarious reaction of the audience. When it was over, she turned to me with misty eyes and asked, "Is this what all Broadway musicals are like?" It broke my heart to tell her she had just seen the only show of its kind, but she can thank her lucky stars it came back in time for her to experience it.
One of my favorite quotes of all time is Julian Marsh proclaiming, "I'm talking about musical comedy, the two most glorious words in the English language!" I could not agree with him more! And the equally glorious embodiment of those words is a little show called 42nd Street. Get yourself to the Ford Center and see this glorious production while you can. Me? I'll be back next week. This is the kind of production every musical theatre lover lives for!