To high kick-start its—wow—60th anniversary season, Musical Theatre West in Long Beach is presenting a glossy, high-energy revival of what could be the Great Grand-Daddy of all backstage musicals: 42ND STREET. This terrific, tap-tastic new production, directed and choreographed by Jon Engstrom—himself a veteran of the original Broadway production—continues performances at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center through this Sunday, November 11.
Fun, frothy, and ecstatically old-fashioned, this 1980 Tony Award-winning Best Musical—itself adapted from the original 1933 Busby Berkeley movie musical—is as forgivably clichéd as it is enjoyably winsome in its behind-the-scenes dramatization of the making of a Depression-era Broadway musical. The real draw of the show, besides its nostalgia-baiting score and its talented, fleet-footed cast is, of course, all that wonderful, spirited dancing.
From its first heaping helping of a kick-line (and, really, who doesn't love a good kick-line?) to its rousing, awww-shucks gumption of a grand finalé, the musical manages to be superbly entertaining—all without the aid of any special effects wizardry that has become a lazy, go-to staple of some modern-day musicals.
This is definitely a show from a bygone era, and everything from the period-perfect costumes to the way phrases are methodically delivered reminds you of that (the dialogue reminds me of classic black-and-white movies where people say "now... listen here, see..." or "well, golly jeepers" or "come on, toots" in adorable vintage-speak). A few times, though, modern self-awareness is allowed to peek through, particularly in some of the more cheeky one-liners that bounce off characters in delightful, snark-tinged ricochet—yet still untarnished by 21st Century cynicism. Who knew? It's a show that revels in its unapologetic optimism!
The musical begins with a mesmerizing display of syncopated tap-dancing: it appears to be a hoofer audition for a brand new musical Pretty Lady, produced by noted Broadway impresario Julian Marsh (the impressive Damon Kirsche), a stern showrunner known for his dictatorial leadership style. Unfortunately for New York City newcomer Peggy Sawyer (the beguiling Tessa Grady)—who literally just stepped off the bus from her hometown with dreams of making it big on Broadway—has arrived too late and is denied a chance to audition.
But outside the theater, a few of the girls in the show take pity on the wide-eyed ingenue and after a quick advice sesh, they improvise a dance routine over lunch. Unbeknownst to them all, the whole scene is witnessed by Julian, who has taken an instant liking to the newbie and makes room for her in the cast.
Meanwhile Julian has other issues to deal with—particularly the one in the form of Dorothy Brock (the amazing Tracy Lore), an aging former stage star with an outsize diva attitude that doesn't particularly match her abilities. She is a bit offended that she is still being required to audition for the show's lead role, despite Julian's explanation that they just needed to make sure the songs met her standard.
You see, the normally strict Julian has reluctantly agreed to cast Dorothy in order to keep his show's wealthy financial backer—and Dorothy's boyfriend—Abner Dillon (Paul Ainsley) happy, and not pull the plug on the musical. But—ohmigod—it turns out Dorothy is still seeing her old boyfriend Pat Denning (Christopher Guilmet) on the side, opening up the risky possibility of shutting down the show.
Alas, it is not Dorothy's secret affair that jeopardizes Pretty Lady. On opening night of the show's out-of-town tryout in Philadelphia, poor Peggy accidentally crashes into Dorothy, rendering the star's ankle broken. Fuming with rage, Julian fires Peggy. Yikes.
But a show this bubbly and optimistic doesn't stay dark too long. Like pretty much every Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney musical ever filmed, the plot maneuvers its way into a quest to get the show going despite such apparently insurmountable obstacles. Thus, with the show in danger of closing for good and never opening in New York, the cast—fearful of unemployment during a Depression—collectively convinces Julian that Peggy is actually the one person that could save the show... you know, since she's naturally super-amazing and all.
After the most rousing "come on, you can do it!" train station flash mob—set to the show's most famous tune "The Lullaby of Broadway"—Julian and the gang convince Peggy to abandon her plans to return to her little po-dunk town and star in Pretty Lady instead. Somehow, the trick works, with Peggy agreeing to learn the lead role from scratch in just two days. I'll give you one guess as to how it turns out.