The Stratford Festival 2012: 42nd Street is Gaudy good fun

Reviewed by Herbert Simpson

dale88fc48d94231b65549111ee2ebfe Photo: David Hou

Ok, it’s a corny show. But it’s gaudy good fun. This ultimate Broadway showbiz story, 42nd Street came back from a 1933 blockbuster film starring Ruby Keeler in Busby Berkeley’s elaborate dance routines and became a megahit musical, recreating its nostalgia and melodrama onstage. Still about becoming a star and creating a hit show, it also re-established tap dancing as a creative Broadway show element after tap had been dropped from new shows for decades.  42nd Street ran for nine years on Broadway and re-introduced that kitschy line, “You’re going out there a youngster. But you’ve got to come back a star!” It also became a tragic Broadway legend on opening night when producer David Merrick had to stop the raucous final applause to announce that its legendary director/choreographer Gower Champion had succumbed to cancer in his hotel room just a few hours before.

Coming back a star in Stratford’s showy new version is Cynthia Dale, who has starred in several plays and at least eight musicals at Stratford.  After a five-year absence and looking uncannily young and still extraordinarily beautiful, she is singing gorgeously as always and bringing sly, sophisticated touches to the role of Dorothy Brock, a glamorous star adored by the show’s chief financial backer.  Dorothy Brock is a famed singer, not a dancer [though we know from Cynthia Dale’s Anything Goes at Stratford that she certainly is a dancer], and when Dorothy breaks her ankle, she can’t do more than appear in one song.  So someone has to “save the show.”

Going out there a youngster is Jennifer Ryder-Shaw, playing Peggy Sawyer, the innocent novice who barely got into the cast of this, her first musical [called “Pretty Lady,” as in the novel, movie and original stage show]. She sings charmingly and can really tear into a hoofer routine.  I hadn’t seen a 42nd Streetbefore with two leading ladies, but Dale and Ryder-Shaw work very well together.

The director is Chicago’s Gary Griffin, whose West Side Story, Evita, and Camelot at Stratford rivaled the Broadway versions.  He finds ingenious ways to stage lively dance numbers almost constantly throughout the show.  Choreographer Alex Sanchez aids Griffin in making Stratford’s classical repertory actors all look like professional dancers in stunning unison tap numbers.  But this is a repertory of traditional time-steps, shuffles, taps, and those raised hands with wide-splayed fingers and open palms facing the audiences and waving from side to side, the uniform stomps and climactic kick-lines that are guaranteed to make any audience applaud with Pavlovian conditioning. It all looks great, but it’s button-pushing: don’t expect creative new choreography.

The show’s fine musical director, Michael Barber leads an orchestra of 15 visible onstage, playing Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s music, most of which you will find familiar.  But few will complain about re-encountering “You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me,” “We’re In the Money,” “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” “Forty Second Street,” or this show’s anthem, “Lullaby of Broadway.” And Debra Hanson’s costumes and magically evolving set, sometimes almost blindingly lit by Paul Miller, maintain the ‘30s atmosphere but dazzle with contemporary staging.

Keeping up the nostalgia, C. David Johnson, evidently no part of Cynthia Dale’s personal life, has been her partner in a TV series, drama and musicals for 25 years and here sings, dances and acts with her as Dorothy Brock’s old flame, Pat Denning. A very polished performer, Johnson is also playing the Major General with the super-fast patter songs in The Pirates of Penzance this season.

The other leading players are very stylishly headed by rich-voiced baritone, Sean Arbuckle [who also stars as Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirate King this summer], as Julian Marsh, director and star of the company, who has to tell Peggy Sawyer to “come back a star.”  And sweet-voiced tenor, Kyle Blair [Frederick in “Pirates…”] is the charming young Billy Lawlor, Peggy’s beau.  They, too, can dance.

Tragedies and powerful drama are set to follow, but Stratford opened this 60th anniversary season by showing off its credentials to score a hit on 42nd Street.

42nd Street
Music by Harry Warren

Lyrics by Al Dunin

Book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble

Based on the novel by Bradford Ropes

Original direction and dances by Gower Champion

Originally Produced on Broadway by David Merrick

Directed by:Gary Griffin

Choreographer: Alex Sanchez

Musical Director: Michael Barber

Cast: Sean Arbuckle, Matthew Armet, Carla Bennett, Kyle Blair, Naomi Costain, Stephen Cota, Rachel Crowther, Cynthia Dale, Carl Danielsen, Nicko Giannakos, Kyle Golemba, Larry Herbert, Julianne Hobby, Jessica Horn, Keely Hutton, Kayla James, C. David Johnson, Galen Johnson, Gabrielle Jones, Lorena McKenzie, Jennifer Rider-Shaw, Jay T. Schramek, Jennifer Stewart, David Tivali, Jordan Till, Geoffrey Tyler.

Technical:                                                                                                                                Set and Costume Designer:  Debra Hanson; Lighting Designer: Paul Miller;; Sound Designer: Peter McBoyle; Stunt Coodinator: Simon Fon

Runs April 12 to October 28, 2012 in the Festival Theatre at the  Stratford Festival of Canada

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