JWR Articles: Live Event - 42nd Street (Director: Gary Griffin) - May 30, 2012
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42nd Street

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Steps away from excellence

It feels singularly strange to likely be the only soul amongst close to 2,000 theatregoers who came away hugely disappointed with the essential element of 42nd Street: tap.

For more than two centuries, specially adapted shoes have delighted audiences worldwide as they revel in the crystal clear syncopated rhythms, shotgun punctuation and whimsical riffs that are heard as largely two-beat music is deftly enlivened when metal heels and toes (replacing leather and wood ~1930’s) stir up percussive waves of tapping from specially finished hardwood floors. Past masters such as Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, the Nicholas Brothers and Gregory Hines (along with the chorus lines in their shows/films) are standards by which all other “tappers” are judged.

If ever there was a need to have the source of the music/dance in real-time visual contact with the dancers it’s this show. Sadly, ironically an early joke (book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble—opened on Broadway in 1980 and became the 12th longest running show with 3,486 performances) demeaning musicians as morally shady because they inhabit a pit drew its requisite laugh despite the fact that conductor/pianist Michael Barber and his intrepid band (slightly raucous trumpets, extra-reedy soprano sax, svelte trombone and tableau enhancing percussion) were—at last—seen and closer to the action near the back of the famed thrust stage on the second tier. No actual pit was contemplated in the design of this marvellous theatrical space whose storied acoustics—for the non-musical fare—requires no amplification of any kind. Imagine Christopher Plummer wearing a body microphone!

As has been chronicled many times before—tediously to some, including your reporter—the employment of electrical sound reinforcement for musicians and performers alike (inadvertently producing the loudest kiss yet heard at these events) serves no real purpose than keeping the sound department busy.

For tap, razor-crisp delivery of music and “footfalls” is a prerequisite to faithful rendering of composer Harry Warren’s scintillating rhythms. SO, with the maestro on high, gamely watching the proceedings rather than directing them and the ensemble members generally showing him their backs, the inevitable delay of both parties’ “notes” reaching first the speakers then human ears reduces the chance for tap euphoria from slim to none. More’s the pity when everyone can witness the enormous effort and enthusiasm by all to exhilarate their audience and themselves. What a hoot it must be to have honed those skills to such an impressive level.

The result? Anything beyond a tutti one-note stomp on the beat came across as scatter shot; for the solos, the chances improved but when the more complicated combinations finally arrived in Act II’s title showstopper, the orchestra’s generally together exclamation points didn’t quite ignite the hoped for spontaneous joy of apparent improv that should/can (see masters, above) artfully fill in the blanks between the musical explosions.

No worries. Everyone else in the room ate up the “good enough” renderings and cheered heartily for more.

Beyond that enraging flaw, Gary Griffin’s show fires on all other cylinders.

Cynthia Dale’s return—no matter what casting or touring decisions kept her out of the limelight since My One and Only—was a gritty triumph. Her solos (notably “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me” in the early going and an especially well-crafted duet with her nemesis, “About a Quarter to Nine”) led the way with the cast as she graciously dug deep into the role of a famed chanteuse whose career—for one reason or another—may never return to its former glory. Life imitates art yet again.

Playing Peggy Sawyer—the newbie triple threat showgirl who quietly covets stardom—Jennifer Rider-Shaw truly comes into her own. More, please.

As her leading beau, Billy, Kyle Blair dances up a storm but needs to tame his quivering vibrato to convincingly become the tenor of note (tight underwear or not: “Read Tarleton”).

The songwriter/lyricist tandem of Geoffrey Tyler (as Bert Barry) and Gabrielle Jones (playing Maggie Jones) is superb. The former’s lascivious take on “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” should most definitely make the highlight reel.

As the extra-demanding, near-heartless (just say it “bully”—so relevant these days) director Julian Marsh, Sean Arbuckle takes on his own directive and does “better than your best.”

Three cheers to Steve Ross for his larger-than-life portrayal of Abner Dillon—Pretty Girl’s principal investor who uses his cash to bed the leading lady or alter her lines—couldn’t happen in real life….

Finally, special mention must be made of Alex Sanchez whose attention to detail recreating Gower Champion’s original dances could have sent this show to the Musical Comedy Hall of Fame if only everyone could have heard what was truly going on. JWR

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