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‘42nd Street’ at Stratford: By any other name, this musical rose would still be just as sweet

Submitted by on Jul 24, 2012 – 12:11 am

Review: “42nd Street,” directed by Gary Griffin, through Oct. 28 at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. ****

By Nancy Malitz

STRATFORD, Ontario — Twice in recent months director Gary Griffin and choreographer Alex Sanchez have created jewel-like adaptations of classic Broadway musicals for theaters whose bread and butter is really the Bard.

First it was their intimate take on Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies,”  which opened the Chicago Shakespeare Theater season in October.  Now their savvy staging of Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s “42nd Street” is tapping the summer away at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

Shakespeare’s the thing at CST and Stratford, and it always will be. But “Follies” and “42nd Street” are best-case examples of the symbiotic relationship that can exist between a company intent on buttressing its core mission with lucrative musicals that are classics in their own right. With their potential to complement the playbill and add an extra bit of comic relief while making even more Shakespeare possible, the formula’s a good one, providing the same high production standards of style and execution apply, as they do here under Griffin’s and Sanchez’ historically respectful care.

Thus the shows to see this summer at Stratford are Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline”  and “42nd Street.”

As light-hearted and plot-frothy as any Astaire and Rogers movie romance, “42nd Street” was first a movie that mesmerized 1933 Depression-weary audiences.  Busby Berkeley’s eye-popping choreography featured kaleidoscopic camera techniques involving hundreds of legs in synchronized motion.

Griffin and Sanchez have a pitch-perfect take on this style, and they sustain the giddy serenity of that movie and its backstage showbiz story that moves along in blistering syncopated tap.

Designer Debra Hanson’s deco-tinted sets and costumes dare to dream in color while evoking the silvery monochromatic dazzle of that black and white age. And Cynthia Dale — in a star turn of sultry substance as the cynical diva who turns out to have a heart of gold — gives the audience some big singing to care about.

Stratford’s Festival Theatre, like Chicago Shakespeare’s, wraps its audience around a thrust stage rather than framing the action behind a proscenium arch. Griffin and Sanchez are masters at bringing their dancers oh-so-close and bathing the three-sided audience in a shower of glitz. If, as an audience member, your own feet want to take off from under you, it’s because you’re practically in this show yourself.

When “42nd Street” was first adapted for Broadway in 1980, directed and choreographed by Gower Champion, the score was sprinkled with additional Warren & Dubin hits that Berkeley made famous in other films, such as the title song from “Dames”  (“What do you go for? go see a show for? Tell the truth, you go to see those beautiful dames”); “About a Quarter to Nine”  from “Go Into Your Dance” and “Lullaby of Broadway”  from “Gold Diggers of 1935.” (“Lullaby” was a Berkeley masterpiece, lasting 13 minutes with its own little tragic arc.)

Underlying all these numbers is the carefree magic and romantic allure of being young and beautiful and just-this-close to hitting the bigtime. Although Stratford’s dancing chorus is much smaller than previous Broadway versions, never mind Berkeley’s cinematic legions, the same feeling of naughty extravagance is conveyed — coin for strategically placed coin in the case of the peekaboo “We’re in the Money,” which erupts out of the chance discovery of one thin dime.

The classically trained actor Sean Arbuckle, a regular at Stratford, nails the role of Julian Marsh, a producer who so desperately needs a hit that he stakes his new song-and-dance extravaganza “Pretty Lady” on a difficult but legendary star (Dale) who can’t dance and who just may be past her prime, but whose sugar daddy is the bankroll.

Meanwhile young love and tap-dancing bliss bloom when the lucky ingénue Peggy (Jennifer Rider-Shaw) meets “Pretty Lady’s” juvenile lead Billy (Kyle Blair). These two are clever triple threats of the Broadway variety — impressive dancers with delightful voices and sufficient acting chops to keep the story moving along.

But it’s Cynthia Dale, as the diva Dorothy Brock on a self-destruct course, who provides the show’s real heart. One could argue that Dale looks far too glamorous to be believeable as past her prime, but she compensates by creating a character who is over the emotional brink, almost — but not quite — too dead to care about salvaging what’s left of her professional and personal life. The scene between Dorothy and Peggy, when the jaded veteran finds the heart to lend a helping hand to the terrified youngling, is gently touching, and it puts the show on a pace to rouse with one last bit of razzle.

Stratford’s other two musical efforts are far less successful – “The Pirates of Penzance” lacks the quintessential bullet-style patter and droll timing that is the mark of great Gilbert & Sullivan, and “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” a weak show to start with, can’t make up its mind whether it’s for kids or adults. “42nd Street” is, however, worthy Stratford fare, a loving homage to the cinematically inspired musical and a tonic of high spirits for hard times.

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Photo captions and credits: Home page and top:  The company discovers that  ingénue Peggy Sawyer (Jennifer Rider-Shaw) can dance and Billy Lawlor (Kyle Blair) takes special interest.  Descending: The chorus of dancers in “We’re in the Money.”  Cynthia Dale plays the bitter diva Dorothy Brock. A leggy shot of Busby Berkeley choreography from the 1933 Warner Brothers film “42nd Street.”  Sean Arbuckle is producer Julian Marsh. Dorothy Brock (Cynthia Dale) and Billy Lawlor (Kyle Blair) rehearse a number for “Pretty Lady.” Below: Full company numbers in the Stratford Festival production of “42nd Street.” (Production photos by David Hou / Stratford Shakespeare Festival) 

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