Village Theatre captures a musical with a history

Village Theatre is putting on an energetic, fun "42nd Street," a play with a nearly incredible history (not to mention a similar story line). For light, guilt-free pleasure, this is the choice.
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Shelly Burch (Dorothy Brock) and James Scheider (Billy Lawlor) performing “You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me.”

Village Theatre is putting on an energetic, fun "42nd Street," a play with a nearly incredible history (not to mention a similar story line). For light, guilt-free pleasure, this is the choice.

Which seems more improbable?

She's just a chorus girl who got into the musical at the last moment. The day before the production is to open on Broadway, the star breaks her ankle and the chorus girl is elevated to the lead, learns all her parts in 36 hours, and goes on to be a smash hit opening night.

Or this:

On the day his big musical is to open on Broadway, the hard-driving director-choreographer dies. That night from the stage and after 11 curtain calls, the show's producer reveals the director's passing to the stunned cast, crew, and audience.

In the world of theater anything is possible, and for the film of "42nd Street," first released in 1933, and the Broadway stage version that made its debut in 1980, both events are true, one a scripted reality, the other reality that seemed scripted.

The play with the remarkable history has come to life again in the Village Theater in Issaquah in an ongoing production, which will move to Everett in July.

In the film, which is based on a novel by Bradford Ropes, Ruby Keeler played the chorus girl Peggy Sawyer. It is considered the classic example of the backstage musical, a genre that gives us glimpses into the lives and work of musical theater professionals, and was a cinematic staple of the 1930s. In the film, just before she goes on stage, Sawyer is given this now classic line by her director Julian Marsh, 'ꀜYou're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!" And indeed she did.

In 1980, Gower Champion, a well-known theater professional and famed former dancer (in partnership with his then-wife Marge Champion), directed and choreographed the live musical "42nd Street," based on the film. It was only the second time that a film had been turned into a Broadway production, the reverse more common at the time.

Champion, who suffered for a decade with a rare blood disease, fell ill during the final two weeks before the opening, and died the afternoon of that night. The famed producer David Merrick kept the news from everyone, only announcing it to the cast and audience after the final curtain. The show was a huge hit and won the Tony for best musical that season.

"42nd Street," both the movie and show are now in the canon of kitsch classics for a variety of reasons, most importantly the story-line, with all its melodrama, snappy dialogue and stock characters — the aging and bitter diva, the brilliant but driven director, the ingénue who wins instant fame, and the wise-cracking chorus girls, all of whom are now part of theater lore.

There are wonderful production numbers with tap dancing galore staged for the film by the fabled Busby Berkeley (who went on in later movies to even more staggeringly excessive numbers: think Carmen Miranda in a 50-foot tall tutti-frutti hat, or a hundred or so beautiful girls in white on a hundred white grand pianos and you get the idea). The Broadway version could not match the scale of the film, but had some great dancing and sets.

And then there is the fabulous score with music by Harry Warren and lyrics by Al Dubin. Some of the noted songs: "I Only Have Eyes for You," "We're in the Money," "Lullaby of Broadway," "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," and, of course, "42nd Street."

In May, the Village Theatre in Issaquah, now celebrating its 30th season in business, opened its production of "42nd Street," which I was able to catch up with this weekend. It is terrific, and runs until the beginning of July in Issaquah, then moves to Everett for another month's run. If you want a few hours of guilt-free pleasure, you should go.

From top to bottom, the production team has done an excellent job. Director Steve Tomkins keeps the action moving along, and everything overlaps with no down time and without seeming too rushed. The show does drag a bit at the end of both acts, but this is often the case in musical theater. You can get a little exhausted by all the action. Tomkins also co-choreographed with Kristin Culp the 10 dance numbers in the show.

There is not a huge range of dance steps among these tap numbers, perhaps in recognition of the range of skills of the performers, but Tomkins and Culp have done a good job in staging them in a variety of ways, and using the performer's best attributes to make the numbers not seem at all repetitive. I particularly liked the dancing of James Scheider, with his aerial lightness in a short solo turn center stage, and the engaging clarity of lead dancer Ross Cornell.

The singing is excellent throughout, the house band, though a bit rough at times, had plenty of energy and stylish interpretations under the baton of Bruce Monroe, co-music director with Tim Symons. The striking and inventive sets gave a real feeling for place and with some small tweaks did lots of double- and triple-duty in different scenes.

Of the fine cast, Shelly Burch shone as the aging diva Dorothy Brock, cast in the fictional show because her rich sugar daddy is backing it, although she secretly loves another. Burch has a rich, lustrous voice, and her slinking around the stage conveys the bitterness and vulnerability her character feels at the loss of her youth. Or maybe she was always a pain in the ass, young or older.

A scene from the original movie

Jennifer Weingarten, the one non-local actor, danced and acted with appropriate sassiness as chorine Anytime Annie (charmingly played in the original film by a pre-Fred Astaire Ginger Rogers), Leslie Law is brassy fun portraying one of the show's writers, and John Bogar as director Marsh grew on me as the show progressed, becoming less a cartoon of the creative tyrant and more a man of parts.

The one miss was the overbearing amplification of much of the show. In a large theater like the Paramount or the Fifth Avenue, I can understand the need for it, but in smaller spaces like the Village Theatre, it too often seems like overkill. Instead of the lovely rhythms of the tapping or the melodic voices, we are machine-gunned with metal on floor, the pit orchestra can sound too strong, and the singing too harsh.

For information on show times and ticket prices for the remainder of the run of "42nd Street" visit the Village Theatre'ꀙs website:  

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