Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Review: (Stratford) 42nd Street

Cynthia Dale (photo credit: David Hou)

Come And Meet Those Dancing Feet
Stratford’s 42nd Street is flashy, if uneven
by Stuart Munro
There is a fantastic moment early on in the Stratford production of 42nd Street. Cynthia Dale, in her first Stratford opening night for a number of years (following a parting of ways with the former artistic staff), approaches Sean Arbuckle, the show-within-the-show’s director, and tells him how thrilled and honoured and humbled she is to be back on stage working again. The audience greeted her entrance with thunderous applause, and there was a bright gleam in her eye—the obvious double meaning of her lines not lost on anyone. It is an incredible instant of art imitating life in the realist way.
Realism then promptly flies out the window.
Readers unfamiliar with the story may want to think of the plot of SMASH, but with fewer affairs and no peanut poisonings.

For fans of 42nd Street, this will not come as any kind of surprise. The musical, based on the 1933 film of the same name, tells of Broadway newcomer, Peggy Sawyer (played by Jennifer Rider-Shaw), and her unexpected rise to stardom. Readers unfamiliar with the story may want to think of the plot of SMASH, but with fewer affairs and no peanut poisonings. 42nd Street is a backstage musical . . . the story behind getting a new show off the ground and on to Broadway. The end result is an early example of a jukebox musical, the book being an excuse to take us from high kicking tap dance to the next high kicking tap dance. The songs, taken from the catalogue of Harry Warren and Al Dubin, mostly belong to the fictional show, Pretty Lady, and are the raison d'être to have the company break into song. Pretty Lady doesn’t appear to be about anything in particular (I think there’s a wedding? Our leading lady arrives in New York?), and 42nd Street doesn’t either. But I’m not really sure that’s the point.
The material may be light, but most of my criticisms end there. This company of Stratford actors bring real life and joy to their performances. Cynthia Dale is fantastic as diva Dorothy Brock, the star who can’t dance but is expected to carry the dance show. Her stellar voice and poise demand attention as soon as she sets foot on stage, and it’s a thrill that Stratford has her back for the season.
Equally strong are Sean Arbuckle as director Julian Marsh, and Kyle Blair as leading tenor Billy Lawlor. Mr. Arbuckle, more well-known for his Shakespeare roles at the festival, does incredibly well in a musical. He’s able to find that delicate balance between believability and slightly over-the-top that this sort of show requires. He handles the vocals of the Act II opener, “Lullaby of Broadway” quite well. Kyle Blair is the quintessential leading man and plays the part of one just as convincingly. His infatuation with Peggy feels genuine and ridiculous all at the same time.
The real stars of this 42nd Street are the extraordinary ensemble.

The only miss in the main cast is Jennifer Rider-Shaw as ingénue Peggy Sawyer. Ms. Rider-Shaw is a terrific dancer, but lacks the vocal and acting chops to convince the audience that she really has that “something” that makes Julian cast her as a lead.
The real stars of this 42nd Street are the extraordinary ensemble. Their entrance garnered a round of applause from the audience, and they sang every note and danced every step of Alex Sanchez’s choreography with energy, precision and drive. If I maybe felt there were too many tap numbers in the show (and I can’t believe I, of all people just wrote that), they were always a joy to watch. Mr. Sanchez’s choreography carries all the 1930s charm of a Busby Berkeley film, and “We’re in the Money” is a clear highlight.
Musically, the production is top-notch; Michael Barber, his musicians and the vocal ensemble all deserve a lot of credit. The original 42nd Street had a cast of thousands, and this cast of twenty-five do an amazing job convincing you there are fifteen other singers hiding backstage. Ms. Hanson’s costumes run the gamut of drab 1930s garb to the flashiest of showgirl costumes. The number of gorgeous headdresses must take up half the backstage!
Dance fans looking for a light evening will be wowed, and rightly so.

I love seeing musicals on the thrust stage of the Festival Theatre, and this was no exception. Director Gary Griffon has left himself a fairly bare stage, necessary for all that tap dancing. Debra Hanson’s design is mostly a balcony for Michael Barber’s fantastic band, and pieces brought on for individual scenes. This works well, and Griffon’s direction for the transitions is well paced. Other plot points are less clear. The love story between Billy and Peggy never seems to get off the ground, and I’m unclear whether or not we’re supposed to assume Julian has a thing for Peggy as well. Likewise, the company have seemingly been instructed to do their best imitation of the early ‘30s movie musicals. This decision seems to make sense, but the end result leaves the whole thing a bit too earnest and a little unclear. From the man who managed to direct a version of EVITA that convinced me it could work as a stage show, I was a little disappointed.
This 42nd Street is a solid good time, but there isn’t much to sink your teeth into. Dance fans looking for a light evening will be wowed, and rightly so. Anyone else might find themselves wanting just a little bit more.

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