'42nd Street' at Lyric provides more than a few kicks

January 27, 1993|By Mike Giuliano

Just as happy hoofers dance away the Great Depression in "42nd Street," Lyric Opera House audiences for this backstage musical may find themselves smiling away their recessionary worries for a while. Although this particular touring production has its frown-inducing moments and definitely comes up short in the razzle-dazzle department, it has just enough kick to make the smiles outweigh the frowns.

Those who saw David Merrick's original 1980 Broadway production of "42nd Street" or some of the touring versions in the years since will instantly realize that the current edition isn't always able to wow the crowd in what should be show-stopping numbers: The staging of "Dames" here isn't helped by some wobbly rehearsal studio-style mirrors, and the coins-as-costumes excesses of "We're in the Money" will leave you feeling a bit short-changed.

And while we're frowning, I wasn't the only one in the high-priced orchestra seats heard to complain about a lighting panel and cables plunked across the front of the stage that made it darn near impossible to see the performers' feet. Admittedly, in most plays this clipped view would only bother a foot fetishist, but "42nd Street" is about tap dancing as much as it is about its silly plot. So unfortunately a lot of us were only able to analyze the actors from the ankle up.

From the ankle up, they looked pretty good. As if plucked from central casting, they easily fill their stock roles: the peroxide blonde chorus girls slinging insults with gleeful abandon; the tenor who preens in smiling self-regard when he isn't courting the hopelessly naive small-town girl hoping to make it on Broadway; the aging star who seems likely to literally break a leg in showbiz fashion; and the silver-haired producer whose

authoritarian presence somehow manages to ensure the show will go on.

If the caliber of the hoofing and the acting sometimes seems like summer stock stopping over in Baltimore for a brief winter stay, that's not necessarily a put-down. After all, "42nd Street" revels in its cliched story line and the characters are supposed to play rather broadly to the orchestra pit and to us.

In that broad spirit, a good acting example is Marcia Lewis as rehearsal pianist Maggie Jones. Her chunky body and strident ++ singing don't prevent her character from jumping into the musical action. Likewise, when Michael Kumor's character, Andy Lee, barks commands to the girls, his theatrical gestures are no broader than what the scene calls for.

Other reliable presences include Jeanna Schweppe as dancer Peggy Sawyer; Ron Holgate as the steadfast producer, Julian Marsh, trying out his new show, "Pretty Lady"; and John Scherer as tenor Billy Lawlor. Only Gretchen Wyler as the washed-up star, Dorothy Brock, goes overboard with her mannerisms; in fact, Wyler occasionally seems to wander into a quasi-Carol Channing imitation.

Director and choreographer Alan Coats, working from the original choreography by Gower Champion, does an efficient if unmemorable job of letting the old-fashioned story tap its way across the stage. What with a Harry Warren score cobbled together from vintage Warner Bros. musicals, how could "42nd Street" not evoke the 1930s? Now, if only top theater tickets were still a mere $4.40.

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