Clichés be damned, there’s something irresistible about the central plot point of “42nd Street” – young stage hopeful gets her big Broadway break when the show’s star breaks her ankle on opening night – that propels the show and makes it a winner nearly every time out.
3-D Theatricals’ production at Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts serves up an extremely good if not extraordinary production of the retro 1980 musical elevated by a huge cast of 40 headed by musical superstar Davis Gaines.
Helmed by David F.M. Vaughn, 3-D’s staging has the patina of the era, from gung-ho Broadway director Julian Marsh (Gaines) to the slew of young musical theater hopefuls counting on his newest show to keep them out of the breadlines.
The show explodes onto the stage with a socko opening tap number of the title song that brims with frantic, tap-happy cast of “kids” from Marsh’s newest show.
That fictional stage musical figures prominently in Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble’s book, an update of the classic 1933 movie musical “42nd Street.”
The show’s framework involves the creation of the show-within-the-show – the fictional “Pretty Lady” – a device that brings in a catalog of some of Warren and Dubin’s best songs, including those from other ’30s movies that weren’t in the original.
In 1933, as the U.S. is mired in the Great Depression, Marsh, Broadway’s leading creator and director of musicals, is launching a new show – but the financial odds are stacked against him, and the only star he can marshall is Dorothy Brock (Sandy Bainum), a one-time headliner who can barely dance and whose last hit was 10 years earlier.
As fate would have it, just two days before opening, Dorothy turns an ankle after being bumped by new chorus girl Peggy Sawyer (Gillian Bozajian). The now-clichéd plotline of unforgiving taskmaster Marsh practically willing the green yet insanely talented young Peggy to learn the show’s leading role in just 36 hours – no pressure there – is like a show-biz version of the Svengali-Trilby story.
Can Peggy pull off this seemingly impossible mission and beat the odds? Our already knowing the answer does nothing to detract from one of the greatest musicals ever, retro or otherwise.
The Stewart-Bramble book showcases Warren and Dubin songs that exuberantly yet lyrically document the ’30s – some of that era’s most famous and enduring hits, including “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me” and “About a Quarter to Nine.” The resulting show is a tap-happy paean not just to the era of “42nd Street,” but to the entire Golden Age of stage and movie musicals.
Shining in every one of her dance numbers, Bozajian offers a realistic, well-rounded reading of the sweetly ingenuous Peggy. By contrast, a more typical one-dimensional take on a role can easily dissolve into the stereotype of a fresh-faced, talented yet naïve wannabe.
Speaking in a charming growl, Gaines’ Marsh is all the role should be – polished yet forceful, with a lovably gruff, hard-as-nails demeanor – and he gets some of the most iconic lines ever, including the all-time classic, “You’re going out there a youngster, but you’ve gotta come back a star.”
Bainum’s Dorothy is an old-school Broadway diva in the best sense of the term. Like Bozajian, she overcomes the role’s more stereotypical aspects, creating a multifaceted persona who’s spiky, yes, yet still likable and even easy to sympathize with.
Quintan Craig’s Billy Lawlor offers a pleasing tenor. As major show backer Abner, the hulking Herschel Sparber is a cross between Jimmy Durante and the Big Jule character from “Guys and Dolls.” Tamara Zook’s Maggie, the co-writer of Marsh’s new show, is a savvy old showbiz vet with a quick wit and a sharp tongue to match, and Adrianna Roes Lyons’ “Anytime” Annie is a ditsy, effervescent chorine who befriends Peggy.
Among the grandly glittering musical centerpieces are the spectacular “We’re In the Money,” “Lullaby of Broadway,” and the second act’s enjoyably, even deliriously, silly “Shuffle Off to Buffalo.”
A focal point of the Cerritos staging, Kami Seymour’s choreography delivers the goods, with one exciting dance scene after another. Guided by the sure hand of musical director Corey B. Hirsch, the 16-piece pit band nails the show’s score – potent throughout, but especially in its mesmeric, sensuous handling of the title song.
The set for the theater where Marsh and his cast work has the authentic look of a drafty, cavernous shell replete with dim lighting and cold metallic fixtures. In fact, many of the set design pieces (by Stephen Gifford, with some of Beowulf Boritt’s sets from the original production), the show’s costumes (uncredited) and Seymour’s dance steps actually represent not just “42nd Street,” but the dances created for “Pretty Lady.”
With its gargantuan cast, the show-within-the-show is wholly credible thanks to director Vaughn’s sizable, immensely talented ensemble (27 in all). Add in several supporting characters playing that show’s various dancers and you’ve got a cast that fills the Cerritos Center stage and seems to swell with each new musical highlight.
The result is a “42nd Street” that entertains and enchants, clichés and all.
Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at [email protected].