Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Theater review: Casa Manana sends its regards to 42nd Street with blockbuster production
You'll love it so much you'll likely stage your own living room production afterward.
FORT WORTH I grew up watching the old "backstage" musical comedies of the Busby Berkeley variety, and pretty much every weekend brought a living room remake of shows like Top Hat, Swing Time, and Footlight Parade where my sisters and I would compete for who got to play Ruby Keeler or Ginger Rogers. These days, productions of these classic tap musicals are rare, in no small part due to the decline of performers with the type of dance training they require. I was so excited therefore to hear that Casa Manana was staging a production of 42nd Street, which was first adapted for the stage in 1980 from the great 1933 Berkeley movie with Keeler, Rogers, and Dick Powell.
The orchestra, led by Sheilah Walker, was phenomenal from the opening notes of the overture and truly one of the stars of the show. Walker led the musicians brilliantly and the music never once fell short or failed to highlight the high-caliber talent onstage.
As the overture drew to a close, refrains of chorus girls excitedly proclaiming that "Julian Marsh is doing a show!" gave way to the nostalgic, unmistakable sounds of a dozen perfectly-timed tappers setting the stage on fire in the opening "Auditions" number, led by the incredibly talented Robbie Roby as choreographer Andy Lee, whose energy and dance skills raised the bar for every dancer in the show.
Though a minor character, Andy is a pivotal part of many of the dance numbers, needing to outshine nearly everyone else in the cast with the possible exception of ingénue and rising star Peggy Sawyer. Roby fully lived up to the requirements of the role. His performance was outstanding as he led the ensemble in auditions for the chorus of Julian Marsh's new musical Pretty Lady.
"Auditions" is a number that immediately shows if a production of 42nd Street is lacking in any of the key elements that are vital to its success. All of the ensemble dancers joined onstage to perform complicated combinations of tap, jazz, and ballet, which left me grinning from ear to ear. One of the most challenging sound designs of musical theatre is that of balancing the orchestra with the sounds of the taps on the dancers' shoes since much of the delight of great tap comes from the rhythms of toes and heels hitting the stage. Sound Designer Jonathan Parke managed this feat beautifully. Though the actors in this number were in rehearsal dancewear instead of street clothes, it didn't stop Costume Designer Tammy Spencer and Patricia Delsordo with her brilliant wigs and makeup from staying true to the period here and through the show. The energy of this number has to be off the charts in order to prime the audience for the remainder of the show, and director Tim Bennett's ensemble hit it out of the park, performing the choreography of Dontee Kiehn with pizzazz and beautiful technical articulation.
Immediately after the opening number, the key ensemble members are introduced, including Ann "Anytime Annie" Reilly, played by Paige Wheat, a talented tapper with va-va-voom curves and a confidence to match her bright red hair. Wheat was a standout among the secondary roles, but the rest of the ensemble was excellent, too. Andy Lee brings Maggie Jones and Bert Barry, the show's writers, to the stage to evaluate the dancers. Linda Leonard as Maggie was another highlight of the production. Though not the strongest singer, she more than held her own, especially as her role required more stage presence and comedic timing than almost any other female, both of which Leonard possessed in spades. Her performance was also one of the most evocative of the fast-talking, Broadway loving, sassy archetypes of the 1930s movie musical and went a long way toward giving the production that MGM musical feel where the timing of the dialogue is just as important as that of the dancers' feet.
As the chorus breaks up, rejoicing in finding a job on Broadway during the Depression, young Peggy Sawyer, fresh off the bus from Allentown, Pennsylvania, dashes onto the stage. Peggy was played by Kirstin Tucker, whose one-note performance through most of the show as the wide-eyed ingénue was offset by a clear yet resonant singing voice and incredible dance skills. Peggy is approached by the show's leading man, a tenor named Billy Lawlor who immediately falls for the shy girl. Charles MacEachern as Billy had a catching enthusiasm though his vocals could use a bit more training. Along with a few other key singers, including Leonard, MacEachern's power notes had a tendency to hurt the eardrums while some of the sequences in his lower register at times were too quiet to be heard over the orchestra.
This could have been a problem with Parke's sound design, but I think it more likely that some of these performers were simply not used to the way the head mics they were wearing worked. Whatever the cause, it was one of the only problems of the show; the lady seated next to me put earplugs in halfway through the first act.
After Billy coaxes Peggy to sing with him, giving Tucker a chance to display some youthful giddiness that was fun to watch, Andy chases her out of the theater since she missed the auditions. On her way out, she slams into revered director Julian Marsh, played by Ted Koch. Koch's rendition of Marsh was full of emotional range.
Koch was without doubt my favorite member of the cast, barking orders and keeping a watchful eye on the "kids" in his chorus line, which eventually includes Peggy, while doing his dubious best to keep leading lady Dorothy Brock, played by Allison Briner, happy.
Dorothy, an aging & temperamental Broadway diva, has secured financial backing for Pretty Lady through her "sugar daddy" Abner Dillon, a millionaire from Tulsa. She agrees to sing a number from the show, Shadow Waltz, so that Marsh can get a sense of her abilities, and Lighting Designer John Bartenstein has some fun projecting her shadow onto the back curtain.
Briner's comedic timing is dead on as Dorothy stumbles about the stage, at once attempting to assert herself as the star while trying hopelessly to keep up with the dancers, who manage to perform a gorgeous jazz ballet routine while keeping the audience in constant giggles with how utterly incompetent they make Dorothy appear.
Briner's vocals were somewhat sub-par but her characterization of Dorothy was nuanced, perfectly timed, and by turns acerbically witty and touchingly vulnerable.
Rehearsals for Pretty Lady continue and the show goes to Philadelphia for previews, at which point the audience is treated to the first number the cast performs in full production mode, "Dames." Finally, the top hats and canes make an appearance as MacEachern's lovely tenor lilted through the ultimate misogynistic song about how the only real reason to go to the theatre is to see the pretty girls onstage, woo them, and then immediately forget about them. It's a testament to MacEachern's sense of wholesome youth, Kiehn's choreography, Spencer's costumes, and Bennett's direction that the song came across as charmingly old-fashioned rather than offensive to women.
This brings us to the number. Every musical has one, the one that dazzles and delights you and leaves you humming the tune all the way home. The number is "We're in the Money" and it's representative of Berkeley at his most glitzy and kitschy. The gold costumes were so sequin-covered they appeared to be made of miniature spotlights. Spencer's costume design for this number was completely true to the period and the genre. Billy's gold sequined tuxedo and the skimpy, shiny costumes of the chorus girls would have been way over-the-top in many other shows but were perfect for this one. The same can be said for the props-turned-set pieces from Scenic Designer Katie Dill whose skills were finally liberated from the rehearsal hall of Pretty Lady and set free to give us a playful and imaginative set where the chorus girls entered carrying oversized dimes which then became dance platforms, and Billy twirled and tapped his way onto a larger version in the center. The male members of the chorus joined in to create an elaborate song-and-dance number worthy of the most high-budget MGM musical. Despite a little bit of awkwardness with the dance platforms, the number was everything a musical like 42nd Street should be: delightful, glamorous, and full of red-hot tappers.
At the opening of Act II, after an unexpected disaster forces Marsh to cancel the show, the ensemble sings "There's a Sunny Side to Every Situation" in ones, twos, and threes at first, with the lights surrounding the dressing table "mirrors" lighting up whenever the respective cast member sings a line. It's a fun trick by Dill, and must have required a lot of rehearsal time for the cast to pull it off so smoothly. The only one who can save the show is Peggy, who is determined to return to Allentown. To convince her to stay, Marsh sings of the "Lullaby of Broadway." While Koch was appropriately both gruff and charming, the chemistry between him and Tucker just wasn't there. Where Koch was at his best was as Marsh's enthusiasm for the theatre is rekindled by Peggy's wide-eyed lack of cynicism while he simultaneously helps her get a little maturity and grow into her sensuality. With the fun number "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," performed by Wheat as Annie and Bob Reed as Bert, Bartenstein displays some more fun creativity with silhouettes of the chorus girls behind panels representing the doors to sleeper coaches on a train. Tucker was in her element by the time she got to the title number, and I was able to classify her as a true-triple threat as she dropped the innocent ingénue and commanded the stage. Even when she wasn't singing or dancing, my eyes were drawn to her, and when she was, I was thoroughly impressed. At the end of the show, Marsh stands alone on the stage to sing a solo reprise of "42nd Street" in what was, to me, the most powerful moment of the play.
What can I say? The set was creative, the costumes were fantastic, the orchestra was amazing, and the caliber of dancing talent in the show was incredibly high.
It was fun from beginning to end, full of classic songs and amazing choreography that, I admit, made an appearance in my living room Saturday night.
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