Delve into the history of 42nd Street and it is as surprising as a piece of musical theatre, celebrating musical theatre, being performed by a cast of theatre students who are not in a musical theatre program.
Based on a 1932 novel by Bradford Ropes, and a 1933 film adaptation starring Ginger Rogers and Dick Powell, the 1980 penned 42nd Street stage musical is a shadow of its source materials. While Ropes’ novel does deal with this show-within-a-show concept, it is but a small footnote to a story of sex, drinking, and adultery. Even the two central male characters were a same-sex couple. Not surprisingly, virtually none of Ropes’ salacious story made an appearance in the 1933 film adaptation, let alone in the stage musical.
While the film version lacked the book’s scandalous themes, there was a greater emphasis in the movie on the era in which it takes place. At the height of The Great Depression, the difficulties of the time played a larger role in the film than the black and white footage used to open this production.
The film adaptation also consisted of just four musical numbers by Harry Warren and Al Dubin. With just a handful of songs in the film, the stage musical’s original producer David Merrick purchased the entire Warren and Dubin music catalogue. Many of their songs from other projects, including the films Gold Diggers of 1933 and Roman Scandals, make an appearance in the stage version of 42nd Street. In fact, if you listen to the lyrics of “Lullaby of Broadway”, it really has nothing to do with the magic of Broadway and musicals. Call it jukebox musical lite.
What does the history lesson have to do with the musical currently playing at Studio 58? It helps to set expectations. Distilled into a largely fluffy homage to musical theatre, it all but ignores its grittier pedigree. Perhaps that is okay for an audience who goes in with no knowledge of its past, but one cannot help but feel it could have been so much more.
There is something ironic about this Studio 58 production of 42nd Street. A celebration of musical theatre being performed by a cast of theatre students from a school whose specialty is not musical theatre.
That isn’t to say these students don’t receive music and dance training during their three year program. It’s just not Studio 58’s focus. The result is similar to last year’s Oklahoma! and 2014’s production of Grease, with a cast not always successful with the music. And when you’re celebrating the musical theatre genre that can be a problem.
Perhaps even more surprising though is while the singing isn’t always on-point, the dancing (and there is a lot of it) is energetic, wildly fun, and skillful. Of course, much of that credit goes to choreographer, Julie Tomaino. As with a number of previously reviewed shows, it is no secret I am a huge fan of Tomaino’s work and in her innate ability to get the most from her casts. In a show that relies so heavily on tap, it is even more unexpected.
As Dorothy Brock, Stephanie Wong finds herself between a rock-and-a-hard-place. Described as an aging diva, Wong’s youth belies a veteran of the theatre. With Brock a caricature of the entitled fading star, it is almost impossible to breathe life into this character.
As Peggy, Krista Skwarok has a wonderful singing voice, but it is tough to buy the naiveté of the young ingénue. Julien Galipeau does nice work in the vocal department as the leading man Billy Lawlor, and is even provided a couple opportunities alluding to the play’s lineage. Matthias Falvai brings a solid performance to Julian Marsh, and you have to admire an actor who, in recognizing his limitations, is willing to give up one of his big notes with a smile and wink.
It is Elizabeth Barrett and David Johnston as the writers of the fictional musical who shine brightest though. Interestingly enough, they are the same two characters who stood out in another local production a few years back. Barrett has the 1930’s patter down with perfection, and is matched by a beautiful voice. Johnston goes a little over-the-top at times, but it works.
The ensemble really sings though (pardon the pun), in some of the larger numbers. The energy and enthusiasm is infectious in numbers such as “Getting Out of Town” and “We’re In the Money”. It is tough not to find your own toes tapping to the music.
Director Barbara Tomasic keeps the action moving, and take full advantage of Alan Brodie’s lighting design with some fun shadow work.
Pam Johnson’s backstage set is simplicity, and Carmen Alatorre has loads of fun with the costumes on both sides of this musical-within-a-musical.
The six piece orchestra under the direction of Christopher King is tremendous. Given the cast works without microphones it was a pleasure to be able to hear the music and the actors. King and his musicians were so good, it was a disappointment the opening night audience felt it was okay to continue intermission conversations during the entr’acte.
At one point in 42nd Street, Julian Marsh declares musical comedy as the two most glorious words in the English language. Lovers of musical theatre will appreciate those words in this celebration of the genre. I just can’t help but think though of what might have been possible.
42nd Street with music by Harry Warren and lyrics by Al Dubin. Book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, based on the novel by Bradford Ropes. Directed by Barbara Tomasic. Musical direction by Christopher King. Choreography by Julie Tomaino. A Studio 58 / Langara College presentation. On stage at Studio 58 (100 West 49th St, Vancouver) until February 26. Tickets available online at Tickets Tonight.