Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
This 42nd Street will engage audiences primed on post-MTV and the spectacle of a Super Bowl half time show. The artistry of its execution will impress anyone who appreciates phenomenal dancing, singing, and production values in service to what has always been a skeletal plot. To wit, in the original 1980 production, rather than crediting writers Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble for the show's book, the official credit cites them for creating "lead-ins and crossovers." That never kept 42nd Street from being a monster hit, running well over eight years, with a hit revival popping up just twelve years after the original closed. The show has always been about its fantasy view of the glamour of old Broadway, its heartfelt songs, and most of all, its wave upon wave of fabulous dancing.
The plot, set in 1933, follows Peggy Sawyer, a young, stagestruck actress who makes the life-altering trip from Allentown to Manhattan to pursue her dream of singing and dancing on a Broadway stage. Peggy suffers humiliation and defeat, only to have the winds of fate, her undeniable talent, and her unspoiled heart land her in the lead role of the biggest new hit Broadway has seen in years, produced and directed by the imperious Julian Marshwho, truth be told, desperately needs a hit.
The most notable alterations in this production, conceived and seamlessly directed by Michael Heitzman, are new orchestrations and arrangements by Everett Bradley that change the smooth depression era sound of hummable tunes from the Harry Warren and Al Dubin songbook into a mix of funk, jazz, breakbeat, and house music, with shades of disco and Motown. The choreography, by Jared Grimes, is altered in accordance with those new sounds, with highly percussive moves that favor individual dancer awesomeness over stage pictures in the manner of Busby Berkley movie musicals that were the model for 42nd Street's original creative force, director and choreographer Gower Champion.
That said, the new staging includes some breathtaking stage pictures engaging the full ensemble, highly inventive choreography throughout, and an energy that speaks to the streets of 2019 rather than 1933. This entertaining work stakes its own claim to an audience's ovation, just not the sentimental, winking valentine to a bygone era that grounded the original.
Those with deep affection for the songs may suffer some disappointments. They're all there, but some of them are so altered by the new arrangements as to sound totally different. The songs that sound the most as we remember them are those given to old-guard characters: the tyro-director Julian Marsh, who takes the lead in "Lullaby of Broadway"; and Dorothy Brock, the aging diva who muscles into the show because her Texan sugar daddy is bankrolling it, and delivers "Shadow Waltz," "You're Getting to be a Habit with Me," "About a Quarter to Nine (in charming duet with the ingenue)," and the torchy "I Know Now." "There's a Sunny Side to Every Situation" is presented with gorgeous choral harmony, but almost as an underscore to a book scene that feels strengthened from previous productions. The songs that serve as big dance numbers are the most "refreshed"or, depending on your taste, "tarnished". But fear notfor the essential title tune, the creative team has remarkably managed to have it both ways, making it sound both brazenly new and comfortably familiar all at once.
Non-local talent has been recruited to the stage in some of the key roles. Jarrod Emick, a Tony Award winning actor (as Joe Hardy in the 1994 revival of Damn Yankees, sings the part of Julian Marsh beautifully, the best I have ever heard in the role. He does well when called upon to be tender and understanding, but the role more often has Marsh as an impatient, barking, exacting task master, tough and gruff, and Emick comes across as a shade too kind in those moments. As Dorothy Brock, Tamara Tunie is superb, her powerful and smoky voice delivering each of her songs with a chanteuse's charm, and she conveys both the bitchiness and unfulfilled longing to a tee.
Kimberly Immanuel is a gem as Peggy Sawyer, balancing the rube-in-the-big-city reticence with an inner confidence and playfulness that makes her fully alive. Immanuel dances and sings with the polish one expects of a star-making turn, a la Peggy Sawyer. Phillip Attmore as Billy Lawler, the leading man who takes an interest in Peggy, has a pleasing tenor, and moves with grace and precision. Alyssa Shorte emanates sassy warmth as Anytime Annie, carrying a few solo vocal spots with style.
Local talent shines in other supporting roles. Jamecia Bennett and Tyler Michaels King play Maggie Jones and Bert Barry, the writers of the new Julian Marsh show who act as cheerleaders throughout the turmoil. Bennett dazzles with her glorious voice, and Michaels King shows off his considerable dancing chops during a specialty turn in "Shuffle Off to Buffalo." T. Mychael Rambo and Tyler Lueck serve their respective roles well as Dorothy's sugar daddy Abner and her secret lover Pat Denning.
Costume designer Emilio Sosa served in that capacity for the Broadway runs of On Your Feet! and Motown: the Musical, and his wardrobes here embrace the same extravagance, at least in the big dance numbers, which sometimes drop any pretense of the show's ostensible 1930s setting. On the other hand, he pulls the trick of making the street wear and dance practice clothes seem both contemporary and very much in synch with 1930s designs.
Paul Tate DePoo III's scenic designs make effective use of scaffolding and movable staircases, and Mike Baldassari's lighting seems to be choreographed right along with the dancers. John Shivers and David Patridge have created superb sound design that enhances the taps on the dancers' feet, and in one chilling scene, provides a tap echo to Peggy Sawyer's inspired moves as she comes into her own as a Broadway star.
The Ordway refers to this production as the world premiere of a revised approach to the material, although a production (now termed "a developmental production") was mounted at Drury Lane Theatre outside Chicago in 2017. Mark Bramble, co-writer of the musical's book (or, if you prefer, "lead-ins and cross-overs"), saw and endorsed the Drury Lane staging. Bramble, who directed a hit revival of 42nd Street on Broadway in 2001, made revisions to his book in preparation for the Ordway production. Sadly, Bramble died this past February.
If you are an adventurous theatergoer, you should by all means dash out to see this newly staged 42nd Street. If your taste is more to the tried and true, you still may enjoy the pizazz of the top-flight dancing and the stunning visual look, and there may be enough songs delivered "old style" to satisfy your yen for the familiar; just don't go expecting a crew who sounds, looks, and danced like Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell. There is a place for that sweetly sentimental, gorgeously executed 1933 classic filmand a place for something bold and new, which the Ordway has handily served up.
42nd Street, through August 11, 2019, at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets from $122 - $48.00, Standing Room: $34.00. Educator and high school/college student rush tickets 30 minutes before curtain, two tickets per valid ID. For tickets and information call 651-224-4222 or visit Ordway.org.
Book: Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, from the book by Bradford Ropes; Music: Harry Warren Lyrics: Al Dubin; Additional Lyrics: Johnny Mercer, Mort Dixon and Michael Stewart; Director: Michael Heitzman; Choreography: Jared Grimes; Original production direction and dances by Gower Champion; Originally produced on Broadway by David Merrick; Scenic and Projection Design: Paul Tate DePoo III; Costume Design: Emilio Sosa; Lighting Design: Mike Baldassari; Sound Design: John Shivers and David Patridge; Hair, Wig and Makeup Design: Robert Dunn; Orchestrations and Arrangements: Everett Bradley; Music Supervisor: David Holcenberg; Music Director/Conductor: Raymond Berg; Casting: Sheena Janson Kelley and Jason Styres C.S.A; Stage Manager: Jenny Lang; Associate Director: Jesse Robb; Producing Associate: Kelli Foster Warder; Production Manager: Andrew G. Luft.
Cast: Phillip Attmore (Billy Lawler), Andy Ausland (ensemble), Jamecia Bennet (Maggie Jones), Rush Benson (ensemble), Lamont Brown (ensemble), Amanda Castro (Lorraine/ensemble), Noah Coon (ensemble), Kurt Csolak (Doctor/ensemble), C.K. Edwards (ensemble), Jarrod Emick (Julian Marsh), Annie Jo Ermel (Phyllis/ensemble), Erica Evans (Andy Lee/ensemble), Aniya Heyward (ensemble), Maddie Hilligoss (ensemble), Kimberly Immanuel (Peggy Sawyer), Tyler Michaels King (Bert Barry), Tyler Lueck (Pat Denning), John Manzari (ensemble), T. Mychael Rambo (Abner Dillon), Allysa Shorte (Anytime Annie/ ensemble), Tamara Tunie (Dorothy Brock), Krysti Wiita (Ethel/ensemble), Shari Williams (Diane/ensemble).