How much fun is 42nd Street? Plenty. Certainly theater likes to do shows about itself, both musicals and straight plays, but this must be one of the earliest. It’s based on the 1933 Hollywood film (and a novel that preceded it, which has sunk into oblivion). Producer David Merrick, a native St. Louisan, turned it into a stage play and brought to Broadway in 1980. It’s become a near-classic, with its tale of the chorus girl who steps into the lead role on opening night. Yes, that’s hokey. But it all works.
Of course the Muny is the perfect site for a show like this, where a huge chorus can work its magic, sweeping (and tapping) across and around the stage – there’s a catwalk around and over the orchestra pit – to create just the right atmosphere. Peggy Sawyer, the ingenue, is Muny newcomer Jonalyn Saxer, full of zest and innocence but not totally sure she can do this. She’s from Allentown, PA, but the character is so full of Midwest Nice that I’m thinking Allentown might, in today’s world, have been Alton. Saxer is strong in the role, singing and dancing so well she, like the character, could be the kid not pulled but pushed from the chorus to the lead.
Julian Marsh, the director of the show that’s being created in the story line, is, we are given to understand a powerful guy on The Great White Way. The role, by the way, was originated by Jerry Orbach, Lenny Briscoe, on the original Law and Order – one wonders if there was anything Ohrbach couldn’t do. Here we have Shuler Hensley. He’s wonderful, towering and arguing, glowering and soothing, showing just the magnetism Julian Marsh should have. Hensley won a Tony for playing Jud Fry, the menacing handyman in Oklahoma!, but this is more complex, and it’s hard not to watch him constantly. At times his Marsh reminded me of a somewhat more benign Stan Kroenke.
Emily Skinner is the aging diva Dorothy Brock whom Marsh has hired despite her notoriously poor dancing. She’s got an admirer who’s financially backing the show – if she stars in it. Skinner sounds great, especially in the classic “I Only Have Eyes For You” and nails the rest of it, too, without resorting to cliches and the sort of scenery-chewing that’s traditionally marked portrayals of such women. Dorothy’s real love is not the admirer but Pat Denning (Joey Sorge), an old boyfriend. Sorge’s a charmer, understandably an object of affection and more. The tenor in the show, Billy Lawlor is Jay Armstrong Johnson, who goes after Peggy the minute he meets here, and we never really know if he’s truly wolfish or just a really, really friendly guy when it comes to the dames – and I use the word deliberately; it’s also the title of a song in the show.
Before the show, I dined with friends, and someone asked about the score. Besides the title song and “I Only Have Eyes For You” (brought into the Top-40 domain by the do-wopping Flamingos in 1959), there are plenty of I-didn’t-know-that-was-from-a-Broadway-show tunes, and they’re all done full justice to, not just by the Muny orchestra, but by the choreography, originally by Gower Champion but here enlarged upon by Denis Jones, who also directed the show. It’s definitely a dance show, with plenty of possibilities, all utilized.
The costumes by Andrea Lauer are delicious, particularly in one number where they appear, one by one, like illustrations from Erte. Michael Schwelkardt’s sets, particularly the one for “We’re In the Money”, where they’re dancing on dimes, are remarkable. Speaking of sets, for heavens’ sake, don’t leave when you think it’s over. The rudeness of it aside, you’ll miss an immense – both literally and figuratively – treat.
through June 30