Sunday, July 28, 2019

Reimagining Done Right: 42nd Street at the Ordway

The Ordway caps its 2018-2019 Broadway season with a smashing production of the old-fashioned musical 42nd Street, playing through August 11.

42nd Street isn't the classic Broadway musical you might think it is: It didn't open on Broadway until 1980, the year after Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita  premiered.

More about the show's history later, but first, the big question: how do you reimagine a musical that was already a period piece when it opened on Broadway?  You revisit the music and the dance.

This "Ordway Original" 42nd Street reprises a version first performed at Chicago's Drury Lane Theatre in 2017, directed (as is the Ordway's production) by Michael Heitzman. The production features the 2017 show's exciting new musical arrangements and orchestrations by Everett Bradley and amazing choreography by Jared Grimes.

42nd Street is a classic backstage musical, in which a talented newcomer shows up at a Broadway audition and manages to impress the creative team and the cast. When the leading lady can't perform, the ingenue becomes a star. Although the story is, as always, set in 1933, the musical arrangements are jazzier than we are used to hearing, and rather than using just the classic line of time-stepping chorines we expect, the tap dancing of the ensemble is loud, percussive, athletic, and thoroughly exciting to watch.

The contrast between the time period of the show and the style of music and dance put me in mind of two things. First, director Baz Luhrmann's 2001 film Moulin Rouge, now making its bow as a Broadway show. The movie used classic pop songs by Elton John, Nirvana, and David Bowie (among many others) to express the feelings of its turn-of-the-twentieth-century characters. My other thought was that in 1933, when the film of 42nd Street debuted, the audience would still have been thrilled to see and hear rows of tap-dancing chorus girls, and surprised and delighted by the innovations of Busby Berkeley's filmed production numbers. This 42nd Street gives the Ordway audience something akin to that visceral thrill, but live and in person.

The cast and set of 42nd Street.
Photo by Paul Tate dePoo III.
In spite of the new-sounding dance, the show is still very much set in the Depression of the 1930s. The fate of the Broadway show at its heart, Pretty Lady, is not just about success or failure. For most of the chorus members, it's a matter of having a job that might run for years, or standing on a breadline if it's a flop.

The cast assembled by the Ordway is top-notch. In the role of producer-director Julian Marsh is Jarrod Emick, who won a Tony Award in 1994 for playing Joe Hardy in Damn Yankees. Having seen him in shows in New York, London, and Chicago, we were thrilled to see he was in the cast. When he sings the title song, his gorgeous voice reverberates through the theater. Tamara Tunie, best known for her television roles in As the World Turns and Law and Order: SVU, plays up the dual personas of Dorothy Brock, a fading star torn between success and love.

Some local favorites play Pretty Lady's writers: Jamecia Bennett and Tyler Michaels King as Maggie Jones and Bert Barry bring comic relief as well as stellar singing and dancing. Unfortunately, the delightful T. Mychael Rambo sings no solos, but is fun as Abner Dillon, the man financing the show. Tyler Lueck is also underused in the role of Pat Denning, Dorothy's secret boyfriend.

Phillip Attmore and Kimberly Immanuel in
42nd Street. Photo by Paul Tate dePoo III.
The big guns in this show, however, are brought by the talented dancers. Peggy Sawyer is played by the incredible Kimberly Immanuel, who also played the role at Drury Lane. Immanuel looks the part of the innocent ingenue in the big city, but when she dances, there's no doubt that she should be the star! Her tapping in this show is a marathon which she finishes without ever looking like she broke a sweat. As the show's leading man, Billy Lawler, Philip Atmore (also from the Chicago production) dances and sings with great charm.

The entire dance ensemble is amazing, so I can't leave anyone out. The terrific group includes Andy Ausland, Rush Benson, Lamont Brown, Amanda Castro, Noah Cook, C.K. Edwards, Annie Jo Ermel, Erica Evans, Aniya Heyward, Maddie Hilligoss, Kurk Csolak, John Manzari, Allysa Shorte, Krysti Wiita, and Shari Williams, plus swings Jackson Grove and Rebekah Gudim, who must also be amazing to be able to step right into those dances! Whew!

The simple, but effective set, designed by Paul Tate dePoo III and lit by Mike Baldassari, uses a few graceful changes to move from backstage to onstage to other locations. The set provides a visible platform for the terrific nine-piece orchestra, led by Raymond Berg, and provides a truly thrilling stage picture in the second act. The sound is good, though opening night tech was a little tetchy. They could probably tone down the mikes on the tap dancing. The hair, wig, and makeup designs of Robert Dunn were spot on, and the period costumes by Emilio Sosa, were mostly lovely (and extremely sparkly) but there were a few quite unflattering exceptions.

Overall, this is a stunning, energetic, athletic, and crowd-pleasing production. Before the first dance number ended, I knew I'd be standing at the end, and I was happy to see the audience leap to its feet. I'll be going back to see the show again, and I recommend it to anyone who loves musicals and dance.

The cast of 42nd Street. 
Photo by Paul Tate dePoo III.
Theater Nerd History Lesson:
The Broadway show (which premiered in 1980) was based on a Warner Brothers film from 1933, a banner year for movie musicals. The film version of 42nd Street was based on a novel by Bradford Ropes, but the film took the novel's gritty look at putting on a Broadway show and sweetened it up for the screen, giving audiences an escape from the depths of the depression, particularly during the kaleidoscopic dance numbers choreographed by Busby Berkeley.

When the musical opened on Broadway in 1980, the show marked the end of a era on the Great White Way. The show was produced by the prolific David Merrick, and directed and choreographed by Gower Champion, whose career began as a dancer on stage and in films in the 1940s. Champion died on the opening night of 42nd Street, which Merrick, ever a showman, announced to the audience and the cast at the show's first curtain call. The show didn't need the publicity; a huge hit, it ran for eight years on Broadway, becoming the second longest running show at the time, behind A Chorus Line.

An added incentive to see 42nd Street: If you purchase tickets for 42nd Street, you can buy advance tickets for The Last Ship at the Ordway in April 2020. The musical written by Sting will actually star Sting himself. Tickets won't go on sale to the general public until the fall, but if you buy 42nd Street tickets, you can buy tickets to The Last Ship until August 11. Because you're not going to miss that one, are you?

The Ordway is doing beautiful original work and is featuring some fantastic tours as well. Check out their season here!