Scintillating 42nd Street from Wellington Musical Theatre

Lyrics: Al Dubin; Music: Harry Warren; Choreography: Gower Champion

Production: Michael Highsted (Executive producer), Stephen Gledhill (Artistic director), Jennifer Petrovich (Stage director), Michael Nicholas Williams (Music director), Belinda Harvey (Choreographer)

St James Theatre, Wellington

29 September to 15 October (seen on Tuesday 4 October)

42nd Street is a relatively unusual case of a musical that saw the light of day as a musical film (in 1933) and was re-created for the Broadway stage in 1980. By that time the lyricist (Al Dubin) was dead, the choreographer (Gower Champion) died on opening night while composer Harry Warren died a year later. The Broadway reincarnation was produced by David Merrick.

And it is probably true that the names Warren and Dubin are known only to Hollywood and Broadway aficionados: compare Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, or the many famous Broadway composers known to everyone. Another thing that surprised me was to find under the entry for Harry Warren in the Faber Companion to 20th Century Popular Music, not even a mention of 42nd Street.

These non-conformist elements might help explain why, in spite of 42nd Street‘s having become famous since it’s Broadway arrival, it is not seen in the same class as the classics of the true ‘musical’: Showboat, Annie Get Your Gun, South Pacific, My Fair Lady or Guys and Dolls.

Though I cannot claim authority to say so, I am sure that 42nd Street has never had a better production in New Zealand than this (though I regret to say I didn’t see either of the company’s earlier highly successful productions in 1995 and 1999, and am aware of Auckland’s last year), and its excellence has given the piece its best possible advocacy. There are more hit songs than in most ‘rock operas’ of the past 40 years – ‘You’re getting to be a habit with me’, ‘I only have eyes for you’, We’re in the money’, ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ and ‘42nd Street’ itself ; the rest are extremely good imitations of memorable, top-class numbers – and they seem to become that in the thrilling, committed performances that so fill the house.

More than most musicals, this show rests for its success on dance even more than on its several great musical numbers. Furthermore, in a show like this it’s rather easy to take the orchestra as read, not hearing the sophisticated orchestration that reinforces the story and it ups and downs.

The 11 versatile players (sounding much larger) from the Vector Wellington Orchestra, amplified of course though not excessively, produce quite brilliant performances, of polish, flair and an instinctive feel for Broadway idiom. The programme’s orchestral listings were confused.

These are the actual details:
Trumpet: Lex French and Barrett Hocking
Trombone: Jonathan Harker
Horn: Shadley van Wyk
Soprano Sax, Alto Sax, Flute, Clarinet: Chris Buckland
Alto Sax, Flute, Clarinet: Hayden Hockley
Tenor Sax, Clarinet: Mike Isaac
Baritone Sax, Bass Clarinet: Andre Paris
Percussion: Jeremy Fitzsimons
Keyboards/Banjo: Dayle Jellyman
Bass: Rowan Clarke

But it’s the dance that makes it the spectacular production triumph that it surely is.

At the start the curtain rises just a metre to show the classic legs of the dancers moving in raffish unison, and it stays there for longer then you expect. The style of dance, of course, is tap, a genre that has not had a high profile in recent times, but hangs on and perhaps as a result of a show like this, is seeing a marked renaissance. 42nd Street has certainly taken centre stage with my tap-entranced, 11-year-old grand-daughter who has not stopped raving about it since seeing it in the weekend.

The large pool of excellent dancers available in Wellington’s very strong dance environment is evident from the company’s ability to recruit its large corps de ballet from young women with uniformly lovely legs that move in elaborate tap routines with rhythmic ease and sensuality.  Scene after scene, chorus after chorus, is simply mesmerizing in its quintessential Broadway glitz; the dancing is beyond stylish; if it were more flawless it could risk being seen as too perfect.

There is now a strong impulse to see the early 30s – the middle of the Great Depression – through nostalgic eyes, and the show captures that, but without the grime and poverty. It leaves you with the feeling that the 1933 film must have aimed at – to lift a stricken populace momentarily from their harrowing daily life to a few hours of make-believe and optimism. For here is the story of a young, talented dancer from small-town Pennsylvania (Allentown, 100km north of Philadelphia and with a population of round 100,000 in the 30s) who through gutsiness, talent and luck steps into the principal dancer’s shoes with 36 hours to learn the entire role – words, music and dance. And of course she survives.

In many ways it’s a time-worn story, but so, in essence, are the stories of all great dramas and every genre of musical theatre including opera.  The company is lucky to have on hand a palpable star to take the role of Peggy Sawyer – Courtney Hale, pretty and with a fresh agility that personifies the ‘anything goes’, as well as the fragility of youth.

Every other role is filled too with perfectly cast singers and for the most part singing dancers. The show-within-a-show, called Pretty Lady, about to open at Atlantic City prior to a later Broadway opening, is produced by Julian Marsh, sung by Jeff Kingsford-Brown, the essence of the dynamic, impulsive impresario who has all the artistic nouse and inspirational gifts required. His ballet master, Andy Lee is Kelly Maguren; he knows his trade, and it’s a believable, unglamorised portrayal. Then there’s the lively, fresh-faced Billy Lawler, danced and sung with tremendous verve by Dion Thorne, and the inevitable financial backer and Dorothy’s lover/sugar-daddy Abner Dillon played by John Goddard, and there are sharp vignettes from David Cox and Nick Swan and Raef Mitchell.

The principal female performers were equally impressive.

The former star, now just a little past it, is Dorothy Brock: here one’s credulity is tested for Mary-Louise Thomas is anything but ‘over the hill’ – pretty, one of the best voices in the cast, and clearly on the rise.  On Pretty Lady‘s opening night she and Peggy (who had made it into the chorus, having been initially excluded for being late at the audition) collide and Dorothy breaks her ankle. The curtain falls and Julian comes out to announce the show cancelled: a stunning end to Act I.

Her colleagues make an impact in the scene where they fill Peggy in on Broadway culture: led by Stephanie Gartrell in the maternal role of Maggie, with Any-time Annie (Rochelle Rose), Phyllis (Shauni Hannah) and Lorraine (Rebecca Hewitt); they delivered a string of great one-liners that remind one that the language is as racy and punchy as the music and the dance.

Act II opens with Peggy’s fellow dancers, concerned inter alia to keep the show and their fees going, persuading Julian to give it a reprieve, giving Peggy the principal’s role, and he races to Philadelphia’s Broad Street Station to intercept her on her dispirited way back home, which is where the show-stopping ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ emerges. Perhaps Act II then has little left to tell apart from Peggy’s panic at the task confronting her, and eventually confirming Peggy’s overwhelming success as well as her humility and her loyalty to her colleagues. The glittering dance ensembles continue, each topping the one before, till one realizes that the choruses have become the finale and endless encore scenes that the audience can hardly tear themselves away from.

It’s the sort of show that totally reinforces a belief in the integrity of the Broadway musical genre.

See the comprehensive feature from The Dominion Post describing the background to the production elements and the knife-edge funding regime that the company experiences, not far removed from that of the musical play itself, at:

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