42nd Street at the 5th Avenue Theatre
Feel-good musicals never go out of style, and the national touring company of 42nd Street definitely made the opening night crowd at the 5th Avenue theatre feel good. Not only is this particular company stronger than the 5th's homegrown one a half a dozen or so years ago, but it rivals, and in some ways surpasses, the Broadway company I saw in 1981.
This revival is faithfully but not slavishly recreated from Gower Champion's swan song original staging. Co-book author Mark Bramble (who wrote it with the late Michael Stewart) and musical stager/choreographer Randy Skinner (who was in the Champion version himself) have tweaked certain numbers and replaced/added a few songs. But the show still pays homage to the man many think of as Broadway's best musical stager of the 1960's.
The backstage story of a chorus girl from Allentown, PA, rising almost overnight from the chorus to the lead in a big Broadway show, is as cliché ridden as ever. However, the Stewart/Bramble book neatly packages a lot of cheap but funny jokes around the hit-laden Harry Warren/ Al Dubin score, never delaying the wait from song to song very much. And if the touring cast isn't totally ideal, it's certainly a far more polished group overall than we saw at the Paramount in another Champion re-tread, Some Like It Hot, last month.
Last seen at many local musical theatre playhouses before he made the move to NYC in the mid-nineties, Patrick Ryan Sullivan has the appropriate swagger, toughness and a more than big enough voice for the relatively few songs given leading male character Julian Marsh. He is at least a decade too young to be considered ideal casting, though, and his total lack of anything approaching a New York accent also takes away from his character. Sullivan does have charisma to spare and I could see him easily acing the role of Mack, if anyone ever really decides to retry another Champion show, Mack and Mabel.
Catherine Wreford as chorus girl Peggy Sawyer is an amazing tapper with a pair of legs that just won't quit. Hers is a brassier, goofier, and tougher Peggy than I've seen before, and she really grows on you. She also makes you consider the possibility that Peggy may develop into a brittle and sophisticated star just like Dorothy Brock whom she replaces. Blair Ross as Dorothy gets all her laughs, throws great star tantrums, sings eerily like the legendary Dolores Gray, and really sells "I Only Have Eyes For You," a wise addition to the score.
Chief comedy honors go to veteran performers Patti Mariano and Frank Root as book writer/showbiz hams Maggie Jones and Bert Barry. Mariano, vocally and comedically, is a brassy Broadway dame cut from a cloth you don't see much anymore and therefore a pitch perfect Maggie, while Root is endearing throughout and is a joy hoofing his way through "Shuffle Off to Buffalo." Robert Spring as the self-impressed tenor Billy Lawlor has the character's vanity down pat but misses making him at all likable, though he is fine in his song and dance chores. Alana Salvatore is a riot as veteran chorine Anytime Annie, and the show has valuable assets in Broadway veterans Daren Kelly and Paul Ainsley as Dorothy's suitors, urbane Pat Denning and cowboy millionaire Abner Dillon, though their onstage time is sadly limited.
The large, young ensemble cast of dancers tap and perform all dance styles required with joy and energy to spare. Especially notable are the title number ballet sequence, a very Busby Berkleyesque "Dames" and the prototypical Champion signature second act rouser to "Lullaby of Broadway." Giving Peggy the "Plenty of Money and You" number in act two makes more story sense, as we see her becoming the star in more than just the climactic ballet, and though the final encore dance number, post-bow, seems like gilding the lily, the audience loves every minute of it.
Phillip J.Lang's archetypal thrilling Broadway orchestrations are well served by conductor Jeff Rizzo and a hot bunch of instrumentalists. Douglas W. Schmidt's attractively kitschy sets, Roger Kirk's eye candy costumes, and Paul Gallo's splendid lighting all add to this handsomely packaged show.
"This is what I thought A Chorus Line would be like" said a fellow audience member, and for her and many others it seems clear that 42nd Street is just the kind of slick, light entertainment that assuages us in this crazy world.
42nd Street runs through June 8, 2003 at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1208 5th Avenue, in Downtown Seattle. For further information see the 5th's web site at www.5thaveneuetheatre.org.