Friday, August 03, 2012

Stratford 2012 - 42nd Street

"The two most beautiful words in the English language: 'musical comedy.'" - Justin Marshall, the director of Pretty Lady.

That sums up the whole idea of 42nd Street, the musical comedy that pays tribute to all the other musical comedies by pulling out all the cliches of Broadway musicals, putting on their tap shoes, and hoofing their way across the stage of the Festival Theatre at Stratford. The story is so well-known -- a girl gets off the bus from Allentown and through luck and compound fractures becomes the toast of Broadway in the smash hit Pretty Lady -- that it's been done, re-done, and parodied (Dames At Sea). The cast has all the types: the young ingenue; the handsome boy tenor; the tough-as-nails/heart-of-gold chorine; the wisecracker; the hard-bitten director; the prima donna star; and even a few mob thugs. You hardly need a synopsis or a program. All you have to do is sit back and listen for the cues to the music, hum along to songs you know, and try to keep your feet from tapping along.

Stratford hasn't always done musicals. When I started coming on a regular basis in the early 1970's, the chances of seeing a show like 42nd Street were as rare as seeing palm trees along the Avon River. Yes, they have always produced modern plays by Canadian and American playwrights, including Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and Robert Patrick's Kennedy's Children was done here in the early 1970's, and they've done stunning works with avant-garde and adventures like Treasure Island. They'd also done their share of Gilbert & Sullivan (The Pirates of Penzance is a regular) along with operettas like Offenbach's La Vie Parisienne. But they also realized that they needed to fill the seats with audiences that weren't into heavy or classical dramas; there was gold in the blue-hair crowd from Toronto, Buffalo, Detroit, and Toledo, and they wanted shows like Oklahoma!, Camelot, My Fair Lady, and for the aging boomers, Jesus Christ Superstar. They had the theatres, they had the talent, and they had the need. And it has worked: productions like Hello Dolly! pay the way for plays like Christopher Marlowe's Edward II, so while the grandparents enjoyed the Broadway show and mom and dad absorbed the culture of Henry V, the gay grandson enjoyed the not-too-subtle subtext of Mr. Marlowe. It's business... but it's also good theatre, and it brings in the audiences who might otherwise turn up their scholarly noses at something they might consider shallow and see what Stratford can do with it. It can be an eye-opener to a larger perspective on something as playful as the "Peanuts" musical, You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown.

Or it could be just plain fun and dazzling as the production of 42nd Street. The music is by Harry Warren, lyrics by Al Dubin, with the book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, and based on the original production directed by Gower Champion. (There's a Broadway legend story that goes along with the original production: Gower Champion died the afternoon of opening night in August 1980.) Director Gary Griffin has a fine cast with Cynthia Dale as the prima donna star who dominates the show until her accident; Kyle Blair is the handsome young tenor, Sean Arbuckle is the tough director, and Jennifer Rider-Shaw is the starry-eyed kid from Allentown who pulls off the smash. The supporting cast is terrific, but it's really an ensemble show, and they can all sing and dance. And they do, right up to the second bow.

My only quibble is that this production was staged on the thrust stage of the Festival Theatre, which I doubt was intended for a full-tilt Broadway tap dance show. It doesn't leave you a lot of room for scenery -- although you don't need much -- and it must have been interesting to choreograph twenty or so dancers on the small space. But it does allow for imaginative and three-dimensional staging that you wouldn't get on the stage of the traditional proscenium house at the Avon, and there's something to be said for, in the words of my late dance teacher Paul Avery, "doing it up brown" on the same stage that saw William Shatner perform Julius Caesar and Irene Worth play Hedda Gabler. And there's not a wrong step or a sour note in the whole show. Sir Tyrone Guthrie would be proud, and I'll bet he would have been tapping along.

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