Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Takin' it to the Street

Patrick Ryan Sullivan coaches Melissa Lone in 42nd Street. Photo by Paul Lyden.

What crystal ball was NSMT's Barry Ivan peering into when he decided to produce 42nd Street? Did he know months ago that the stock market would soon tank, a depression would be at hand, and America would be right back where it was in 1933, the year of the original Busby Berkeley movie's premiere? Perhaps this strange coincidence was serendipity (of a sort!), but it gives the dazzling North Shore production a surprising resonance it wouldn't otherwise have: not only is this the best show in town, it's also the most timely. If your 401(k) has you down, this is the ticket to chase those blues away, if only for a few blissful hours.

And truth be told, the stage version of 42nd Street - devised for Broadway by Gower Champion during hard times in 1980 - is in many ways a marked improvement over the original (compare clips below): it's got roughly the same sentimentally hard-boiled plot, but the Harry Warren score has been stacked with songs from his other hits, so the musical boasts not just "42nd Street" and "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," but such golden oldies as "We're In the Money," "Lullaby of Broadway," and "I Only Have Eyes for You." Add to that mix of melodies a zippy book and a seemingly endless parade of top-drawer tap dancing (choreographed by Michael Lichtefeld, who impressed with last summer's Bye Bye Birdie), and you have what amounts to an entertainment powerhouse. I almost defy you not to enjoy this show.

Ruby Keeler demonstrates why her star waned after 42nd Street.

If pressed, I could admit to a few caveats. The final number isn't quite the blow-out we hope for - that honor would have to go to "We're in the Money," which the cast sensibly reprises at the curtain call. I also wish the show had used a slower arrangement for "I Only Have Eyes for You," which the Flamingos later revealed as one of the most ravishing ballads ever written. I longed for a mirror overhead, to capture the patterns in the dancing (or perhaps a camera, to project them onto the screens around the theatre). And while the leads are all strong triple threats, there's no stunning star performance here, as there was in Birdie and Showboat. Actually, let me correct that - star Melissa Lone's tap skills are, indeed, stunning; the girl seems to clock taps at something close to light speed, and she projects just the right mix of moxie and winsomeness. The singing honors, however, would have to go to co-star Todd Lattimore, who hits high notes as easily as he scores high kicks. Hot on his heels, however, is Beth Glover, who invests the ill-fated diva (you know, the one who breaks her ankle so the "youngster" can "come back a star") with both an elegant vocal line and an amusingly sympathetic hauteur. I was least taken with Patrick Ryan Sullivan, who plays the impresario behind the show-within-the-show. Sullivan had everything it took to do the role - he's done it before, on Broadway and elsewhere - just at the performance I attended he seemed to slightly lag his costars in energy.

The North Shore version - faster, funnier, and lighter on its many feet.

The thing to savor most about 42nd Street, however, is its refreshing cynicism. The original movie was produced by Warner Bros., usually the home of Jimmy Cagney and other tough guys, and so the musical veered more toward Damon Runyon than Norman Rockwell, and shrugged off the Depression's hard knocks with devil-may-care attitude. In "We're in the Money," for example, the chorines warble that "When we see the landlord we can look that guy right in the eye!" And after the opening "honeymoon" verses of "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," comes the knowing rejoinder, "Matrimony is baloney/She'll be wanting alimony/In a year or so . . .She'll give him the Shuffle/When they're back from Buffalo." Ah, if only today's lyricists had the same cheek - then every show would remain as evergreen as 42nd Street.

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