The lights were lit, the stage was set and the buzz electric as 42nd Street opened last night at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Arguably one of the most anticipated shows of the 60th Season, 42nd Street marks the long-awaited return of Cynthia Dale to the Festival after a five year absence. And while Ms. Dale does not disappoint, where 42nd Street shines brightest is when the ensemble works together as a unified group. When everyone joins together for rousing numbers such as ‘We’re in the Money’ or ‘Forty Second Street’ it is a triumphant expression of the ‘triple threat’ talents that the Stratford Festival has become known for. These actors can sing, dance and act while putting on one heck of a great show.
42nd Street tells the story of the development of ‘Pretty Lady’ – a new musical with big Broadway dreams. Cynthia Dale stars as Dorothy Brock, a former leading lady well past her prime who is cast in the lead role due to her relationship with a wealthy investor (a delightfully over the top Steve Ross). Pretty Lady is helmed by Julian Marsh (a commanding Sean Arbuckle) who is determined to turn the show into the hit of his career. He is joined by a writing duo Maggie Jones and Bert Barry (Gabrielle Jones and Geoffrey Tyler) who are tasked with keeping the production together and provide much of the stronger comedic moments in the production.
Of course, a story about the development of a Broadway bound musical would not be complete without the requisite amount of behind the scenes drama, which in 42nd Street comes in a few different forms. The first of which is the central storyline in the show and involves a young girl from Allentown, PA (played here by a luminous Jennifer Rider-Shaw) who arrives in New York with big Broadway Baby dreams. Through a stroke of good luck she lands a role in the chorus of ‘Pretty Lady’, and falls for the show’s leading man Billy Lawlor (a scene stealing Kyle Blair). Young Peggy immediately bonds with many of the chorus girls but clashes with diva Dorothy Brock, setting the stage for the second act where through a series of plot furthering events Ms. Sawyer ends up taking on the lead role in the show. Parallels to the hit TV show Smash can be drawn at your own risk.
A secondary storyline involves the relationship between Ms. Brock and the love of her life Pat Denning (played here by C. David Johnson, back from a stint on the Great White Way in Priscilla Queen of the Desert), a man she tossed aside for the sake of her career in the theatre and a sugar daddy. It is this storyline that provides much of the heart behind 42nd Street, as we watch Ms. Dale go through the internal struggle of a woman faced between following her dreams and following her heart. Credit must be given to Ms. Dale for managing to take a character that could be played very one-dimensional and giving her a very real humanity and spirit that is both heartbreaking and relatable. When she has her eleven o’clock scene with young Peggy Sawyer and gives the ingénue some heartfelt advice, the two actresses share a tender moment that tugs at the heartstrings and provides a brief glimpse into the ‘behind the scenes’ lives of people who choose theatre as a career.
All in all, 42nd Street is a big, brash and over the top musical that harkens back to the ‘glory days’ of Broadway when the men were men, the women were dames and the dreams were big. Its plot may be thin, but what it lacks in storyline it makes up for in great music, gorgeous costumes, thrilling choreography (by Alex Sanchez) and a top notch, hard-working cast. A special shout-out should also be given to the band, who are placed above the stage in plain view of the audience and given the opportunity to interact throughout the production. In a year where Broadway has been criticized for its lack of original musicals, it is a delight to see a revival that reminds the audience of what ‘old-style’ musicals used to be like. 42nd Street is the type of show that the older generation will enjoy with fond memories of days gone by, and new generations should embrace for its beauty, originality and toe-tapping fun.