Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Dancing Feat: Impressive Numbers Add Up to Make '42nd Street' an Enjoyable, If Not Extraordinary, Destination -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

42nd Street
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru March 20

Based on an Oscar-nominated musical film from 1933, 42nd Street won the Best Musical Tony Award after it premiered on Broadway in 1980--it would run for nearly 9 years--and the Best Musical Revival Tony for a 2001 remount that spent another 4 years in the show's Times Square locale.

So although a seemingly non-Equity National Tour feels a bit odd 10+ years after 42nd Street's last Broadway appearance--and I've been a Broadway in Chicago subscriber long enough to have caught the revival tour in 2002--the musical appropriately begins with one of the most timeless opening numbers you'll ever see.

After a fine overture wonderfully rendered at the Chicago tour stop by a 12-member orchestra, the curtain rises to reveal the full cast in a sublime group tap dancing routine.

The show ends--almost, as an unnecessary 10 minutes follow--with an even more blissful tap dancing spectacle featuring a staircase and set to the musical's title tune.

In between come several dazzling numbers--often involving choral singing, group tap dancing or both--and classic tunes such as "Lullaby of Broadway," "We're in the Money" and "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" that have undoubtedly delighted audiences since composer Harry Warren and lyricist Al Dubin wrote them for the movie or around that time.

Photo credit on all: Chris Bennion
But although there are many terrific moments in 42nd Street, thanks in large part in 2016 to a tappingly-talented cast choreographed by Randy Skinner, in full it feels a bit antiquated and somewhat less than astonishing. (The show's original director and dance creator, the legendary Gower Champion, tragically died on the day of the 1980 opening night.)

I certainly appreciate the numerous delights to be found in "old-fashioned musicals" scored by geniuses like Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Irving Berlin, but especially when witnessed with modern eyes, many shows from the first half of the 20th Century--1943's Oklahoma by Rodgers & Hammerstein is oft-regarded as revolutionizing the art form--suffer from slight, hokey story lines with dubious continuity and excessive whiteness, and prima facie straightness, that feels at odds with today's cultural and theatrical landscape. (Though brought to the stage in 1980, the classic songs of 42nd Street give it a kinship with earlier works.)

Not everything nowadays needs to be Hamilton or Fun Home or Spring Awakening, but whereas a current revival tour of the 50-year-old Cabaret not only felt edgy in a contemporary sense, its brassy, brilliant score blended with the foreboding tale of rising fascism/Nazism to feel entirely--and quite eerily--resonant and relevant in 2016 America.

But while 42nd Street merits being called a "beloved" musical--a sentiment many at Chicago's Cadillac Palace on Tuesday night would seemingly wholeheartedly endorse--and there is nothing wrong, and often much right, with enjoying quality entertainment simply for entertainment's sake, the show didn't really give me much reason for needing to see it again (beyond its inclusion in my Broadway in Chicago subscription series; besides the 2002 tour, I had seen a fine local production at Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire in 2011).

I don't know what's involved with modifying a longstanding musical, but particularly as the director of this touring version, Mark Bramble, was co-book writer of the original stage incarnation, simply in the name supplementing the tasty tunes and terrific dancing with a newfound sense of urgency, I would suggest doing some modernizing.

Much as Shakespeare plays are sometimes staged in modern dress, perhaps change the setting of 42nd Street from 1933 to the present day.

The basic story of a noted theatrical director named Julian Marsh (played here by Matthew J. Taylor) working on bringing a new musical to Broadway, complemented by writers/producers (Britte Steele, Steven Bidwell) and backed by a rich rube (Mark Fishback) who insists that aging leading lady--and his love interest--Dorothy Brock (Kaitlin Lawrence, well-sung but technically a bit young for the role) be given the starring role, with the eventual ascension of a gifted chorus girl named Peggy Sawyer (a likable and well-heeled Caitlin Ehlinger), could well transition to NYC of today without wholesale narrative adjustments.

And with the most famous of the Warren/Dubin songs--including "I Only Have Eyes for You"--packing considerably more punch than the rest of the score in the current rendition, the music of 42nd Street could also conceivably be reinvigorated alongside contemporary costuming, a crisper updating of the book and a much more diverse cast. (Lamont Brown stands out as Andy Lee, choreographer of the show-within-the-show, but at least from the top of the balcony, the rest of the ensemble looked rather homogeneous.)

There is nothing bad about 42nd Street in its current form, and its likelihood of frequently putting a smile on the face of musical theater and/or tap dancing lovers--including simply in appreciation of the energy and effort expended by the young cast over 2-1/2 hours--could well justify the trip down to Randolph Street.

But with due respect to how well the material may have gone over in movie palaces--and perhaps specifically the New Palace Theatre, now with a luxury car branding rights sponsor--in 1933, the impressive Broadway runs, Tony Awards and the legendary legacies of Gower Champion and original producer David Merrick, in the here-and-now 42nd Street feels a bit overly trod.

It's good, it's fun, it's gloriously old school and--especially when you "hear those dancing feet"--it's often delightful.

But as both a classic-if-not-exactly-contemporary musical and one of myriad entertainment options in Chicago over the next couple weeks, it doesn't seem truly vital.

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