The quintessential backstage musical "42nd Street" tapped its way into Dallas in an all-new production that premiered June 28 at the Music Hall at Fair Park. At first glance this production seems like a hodgepodge; familiar, tired backstage tropes punctuated by phenomenal dance numbers. But not so fast.
The reason the non-musical numbers are so recognizable isn't that the book stinks but rather because the film "42nd Street" is the ancestral musical from which all backstage musicals are derived. It's the ultimate backstager: young girl lands in New York gets the big break and becomes an overnight star.
First came the Bradford Ropes novel in 1932, followed closely by the 1933 film, "42nd Street," featuring choreography by Busby Berkeley, legendary for his surreal dance routines.
Six decades later "42nd Street," a Broadway musical about putting on a Broadway musical, opened on the Great White Way and danced away with the Best Musical Tony. Two decades after that win, a "42nd Street" revival was launched that shuffled off with the Best Musical Revival Tony.
"42nd Street" features music by Harry Warren and lyrics by Al Dubin. The show swells with Broadway standards including "We're In The Money," "I Only Have Eyes For You," "Lullaby of Broadway" and of course the eponymous song.
In addition to its film heritage, the original 1980 stage production is steeped in its real life backstage drama. On the afternoon of the opening night, the show's legendary Choreographer and Director Gower Champion died.
Champion's now iconic tap extravaganzas are dazzling dance spectacles that will have you both on your feet hooting and hollering and Googling where to find yourself some tap dance lessons. The show's full ensemble exceeds 30 dancers hoofing in thrilling unison. These flashy eye-popping dances are why "42nd Street" is often billed as the musical for people who love musicals.
Despite the simple plot "42nd Street" is packed with characters you already know too well: the maniacal director, the befuddled producer, the narcissistic leading lady, the leading man, the comic relief couple and the loyal choreographer.
But it's here where this production of "42nd Street" missteps. The musical requires oversized personalities and performances to sell the show's simple premise and unfortunately few actors in this production are plus size.
A rarity for this show, Matthew J. Taylor gives a charismatic XL performance as Director Julian Marsh, who'll do anything to get the show to open including uttering the famous line to Peggy, "You're going out a youngster, but you're coming back a star."
Kaitlin Lawrence plays leading lady Dorothy Brock. Lawrence's devilish diva needs to claw instead of scratch. But Lawrence redeems herself with a lovely rendition of "I Only Have Eyes For You."
Britte Steele and Steven Bidwell broadly stumble their way through laughs and pratfalls as the musical's composers. Mark Fishback earns some grins as the fish-out-of-water producer.
But DJ Canady barely registers as a love interest for Brock. Likewise, Blake Stadnik's performance as Brock's leading man disappears into the large society of soft-shoes.
And unfortunately, Caitlin Ehlinger (as Peggy Sawyer) doesn't follow her character's trajectory from chorus girl to superstardom. Ehlinger is a fantastic dancer but her Peggy is no headliner, and she doesn't stand out from the large troupe of time-steppers.
And that brings us full circle to an overall mixed bag of a musical. Maybe we should create a 'Who Cares' musical subgenre. Yes, the plot is overly familiar and highly predictable, but Who Cares because the dancing is some of the best you're bound to see. And yes, the casting is less than stellar but Who Cares because you'll be on the edge of your seat cheering when the exciting troupe takes the stage for the big finale.
Despite its flaws, these dancing feet deserve to be seen so head to the avenue I'm recommending to you, "42nd Street."
"42nd Street" continues through July 10 at The Music Hall at Fair Park, 909 1st Avenue in Dallas. For information or tickets, call 214-691-7200 or visit http://www.dallassummermusicals.org
After its Dallas run, "42nd Street" will play July 12-17 at the Bass Performance Hall, 525 Commerce St in Fort Worth. For information or tickets, call 817-212-4280 or visit www.basshall.com