“In the heart of little ol’ New York there runs a thoroughfare; It’s the part of little ol’ New York that runs into Times Square–a ’crazy quilt’ that ’Wall Street Jack’ built; so if you’ve got a little time to spare I want to take you there…”
“Think of Musical Comedy–the two most glorious words in the English language” says Impresario ‘Julian Marsh’ to wide-eyed new-comer ‘Peggy Sawyer’ in “42nd Street”–the Tony Award Winning song-and-dance fable of “The Great White Way“. Adapted from the classic Busby Berkeley film, this bona fide crowd-pleaser launched Southern-California based “Musical Theater West‘s” 60th Season on October 26th where it will run for three weeks at “The Carpenter Center For The Performing Arts” in Long Beach California. Featuring a genuine “Gold Medal” score by Al Dubin and Harry Warren, every song ranks as an authentic American standard. Then again, how many musicals these days feature show-stoppers in practically every number? Gladly, that’s precisely what Musical Theater West has with this.
Directed by Jon Engstrom, whose intimate familiarity with the show goes all the way back to when he was featured in the original Broadway cast, such insights serve him well as both Director AND Choreographer now (–he’s even expertly re-constructed all of that version’s ground-breaking moves for the big title number!) Moreover, he puts the laughs first and foremost which keeps the story lively and fresh without losing an iota of the sheer pageantry or musicality the show has become so celebrated for. With Musical Director and Conductor, Michael Borth at the baton, the Overture goes immediately into the electrifying opening–an audition for the latest stage epic, “Pretty Lady” that has the entire ensemble thunderously tapping away in unison. “What a way to start” one audience member was overheard to say at Saturday Night’s sold-out performance! In fact, so enthusiastic was the entire audience that night, sharp ears might even have picked up more than a few singing along to all the old standards this score is over-flowing with.
The year is 1933 at the height of the depression, and “Julian Marsh is doin’ show!“ This means potential jobs for these dancers hoping for a spot in the chorus, where, as Marsh tells them, in only five weeks time they’ll be “dancing their way to glory and thirty-two bucks a week!” Immediately following, young Peggy Sawyer, fresh off the bus from Allentown PA rushes in (–she missed the initial dance call because she was outside working up enough nerve to come inside and join in.) At first rebuffed, some of the “kids” in the chorus take pity and invite her to lunch during which she shows them some steps that also happen to be witnessed by Marsh, who immediately decides the chorus could use one more girl. As anyone even the least bit familiar with this classic story knows, when leading lady Dorothy Brock, breaks her ankle just before the show is set to open, seasoned chorine “Anytime Annie‘ (engagingly played by Caitlyn Calfas) suggests Peggy. “She has a voice that will panic ‘em and she can dance rings around Brock!” she tells the Director. As in all the best traditions of theatrical lore, Peggy learns all the lines, lyrics and routines in just two days and opening night arrives–but not before Julian gives her a last minute pep-talk which includes that now iconic phrase, “You’re going out there a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!”
In the central role of Peggy Sawyer, Tessa Grady offers way more than just duplicating Ruby Keeler’s fresh-faced (if slightly drowsy) ingénue. She’s a vibrant entertainer and vocal powerhouse who handily puts the “Dance” in “Dancin’ Feet” here! Likewise, Damon Kirsche’s Julian Marsh has a few “Major-League” moments of his own, but you have to wait until the second act for them to arrive; happily, when they do, they’re more than worth the wait–such as during the magnificent “Lullaby Of Broadway”. Another voice to be reckoned with belongs to Zach Hess as Tenor Billy Lawlor, which is robust enough to raise the roof of the Carpenter Center’s spacious 1074 seat auditorium, making just about every number he’s in worthy of an ovation all its own. Choreographically, Hess and Grady’s best shared moment involves a ‘challenge dance’ occurring as part of the climactic titular extravaganza, wherein one executes a step that is then immediately copied back by the other, which continues building on into the finale.
Barbara Carlton-Heart also does a fine job as Maggie Jones–“Pretty Lady’s” co-writer, and its company’s brassy resident ‘mother hen‘, while Jamie Torcellini is her puckish partner, Bert Barry. For this particular incarnation, Engstrom has actually merged Barry with another character –that of the show’s Choreographer as well, which affords Torcellini twice as many opportunities to demonstrate some amazingly fancy footwork. So too, in her turn as Dorothy Brock, the Diva hired in no small part due to her connection to a wealthy businessman willing to finance the show (–as long as she’s the star–) Tracy Lore is appropriately arrogant and humorously bitchy; she also really delivers the goods in her larger, over-the-top spectacles like “The Shadow Waltz” and “Getting To Be A Habit With Me”, while still conveying a nice emotional vulnerability in her more intimate ballads, “I Know Now” and “A Quarter To Nine”. Meanwhile, Paul Ainsley is one big bundle of larger than life likeability as the rough-around-the edges, southern gent, Abner Dillon–Brock’s wealthy “beau du jour” and the shows chief investor. Well deserved mention also has to be made of the ensemble–crucial to a show like this–which is comprised of 28 of the most gifted hoofers ever to master a waltz-clog or triumph with a time-step; faced with some pretty complex (not to mention dazzling) combinations, this entire bunch literally doesn’t put a foot wrong! Collectively, they especially excel with “We’re In The Money” and “Dames”, which truly capture the essence of those great old Busby Berkeley movies–as does “The Shadow Waltz” which also throws in some nifty lighting effects and huge chuckles as well.
Admit it, we’ve all dreamt of stepping out of the wings and into the spot light at one time or another–now’s the chance to “go dream a little” with this high-struttin’ delight of a production; so “Shuffle off” to “The Carpenter Center For The Performing Arts” situated on the campus of California State University Long Beach at 6200 E. Atherton Street, Long Beach, CA. Currently playing through November 11, curtain-times are Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday Matinees at 2 p.m., with added shows at 7 p.m. on Sunday, November 4th and Thursday November 8th at 8 p.m. (There is no 2 p.m. show scheduled on Saturday, November 10th .) Tickets may be purchased online at www.musical.org ; by phone at 562-856-1999 x4, or in person, Tuesday through Saturday from noon to 6 p.m. at the Musical Theatre West Box Office located at 4350 E. 7th Street, Long Beach, CA. (While you’re at it, be sure to checkout the Apple I-Tunes Store for a FREE Musical Theatre West App!)
Photos by Alysa Brennan, Courtesy of Musical Theater West; Special Thanks to Paul Garman, Gigi Fusco-Meese and the Cast & Crew Of Musical Theater West’s “42nd Street” for making this story possible.