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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Theatre review: 42nd Street is tapalicious

Choreography and orchestra help to overcome this musical-within-a-musical’s improbable story

One may be forgiven in thinking the musical 42nd Street, currently playing at Stanley Park’s Malkin Bowl, is from a different era. But it is largely artifice. As while the show borrows heavily from the 1930’s songbook of Al Dubin and Harry Warren, and is (sort of) based on the 1932 Bradford Ropes novel and its 1933 film adaptation, the frothy and frivolous musical only first appeared on the Great White Way in 1980.

Hoping to cash-in on the nostalgia craze of the time, it definitely hit its mark, as the Tony Award-winning musical eventually went on to be the 14th longest running show on Broadway. There is little doubt this was achieved by the use of some of its immediately recognizable tunes, and its impressive and abundant tap numbers.

The Theatre Under The Stars (TUTS) production, playing on alternating nights with Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella, takes full advantage of those two strengths, with Shelley Stewart Hunt’s choreography, and music director Chris King’s orchestra, bringing this show’s biggest thrills.

Somewhat dated, and wholly improbable, 42nd Street is the story of Peggy Sawyer who gets her big break in the new musical, Pretty Lady, after the show’s star breaks her ankle. With just hours to learn the part, it will hardly come as a surprise that Sawyer rises to the occasion, ultimately saving the show from closing. There are other minor plot points, including a love story between veteran musical theatre diva Dorothy Brock and her ex-vaudeville partner. Like other shows of its kind though, these secondary storylines feel a lot like filler.

But while its story might be slight (and sometimes a little cringe-worthy when viewed through a 2018 lens), it really is all about the dance and the music. And even while some of the singing isn’t where it should be, the orchestra gets full marks.

This TUTS production also casts musical director King, in a surprisingly uncredited role. Here, King plays a hybrid of co-writer Bert Barry, one-half of the composing team of the fictional musical-within-a-musical, and rehearsal pianist Oscar. Watching King move from stage to orchestra pit (and back again on numerous occasions) is almost like watching David Copperfield magically disappear from the stage, only to be found a moment later standing at the back of the theatre.

Then, of course, there is Shelley Stewart Hunt’s choreography. Like Nicol Spinola and her Cinderella cast, Hunt manages to not only create some visually interesting moments, but she pulls some incredible feats from an ensemble largely made up of amateurs and pre-professionals. The usual showstoppers, including the opening “Audition”, “Getting Out of Town”, “We’re In The Money” and the title song, do not disappoint.

Paige Fraser, Janet Gigliotti, and Blake Sartin with the cast of the Theatre Under The Stars production of 42nd Street. Photo by Lindsay Elliott.
Paige Fraser, Janet Gigliotti, and Blake Sartin with the cast of the Theatre Under The Stars production of 42nd Street. Photo by Lindsay Elliott.

Leading the way here is a terrific dance performance by Colin Humphrey, as Pretty Lady’s choreographer and dance director. And as Peggy, Paige Fraser gets to show off her ample hoofing skills as well.

With the dance offering so many of the pleasures in 42nd Street though, it was a disappointment to see stage director Robert McQueen blocking much of “Dames” by positioning Pretty Lady co-writer Maggie Jones on the apron with her back to the audience. One can only assume McQueen was making some sort of comment about this rather sexist song.

Along with the dance and orchestra, there are some other nice individual performances and moments in 42nd Street.

As Dorothy Brock, Janet Gigliotti manages that fine line between entitled diva and a caricature of the same character. Perhaps a little young to be playing this veteran, it does help to sell her relationship with Pat Denney, played by Matthias Falvai, a little more realistic. With a lovely voice, Gigliotti gives nice performances in both “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me” and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”. Coupled with Fraser, their duet “About a Quarter to Nine” is touching.

Andrew Cownden plays Pretty Lady’s director Julian Marsh with great relish, although he often leans towards angry and loud. Jolene Bernardino shines as chorus dancer Ann Reilly, and Blake Sartin does a nice job as leading man Billy Lawlor (despite being lost in his big number, “Dames”).

Costume designer Christina Sinosich once again amazes, especially considering she also designed for TUT’s other musical this year. Of course, with most musicals, the sound designer is worth their weight in gold, and Bradley Danyluk delivers the goods for both this production, and Cinderella.

At one point in 42nd Street, Julian Marsh declares musical comedy as two of the most glorious words in the English language. While perhaps a tad bombastic (it is Julian Marsh after all), audiences are definitely going to enjoy the dancing and the music in this production under the stars.

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 Robert McQueen. A Theatre Under The Stars production playing on alternating nights with Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella at Stanley Park’s Malkin Bowl until August 18. Visit for tickets and information.

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