Dancing fills `42nd Street'

Theater: Toby's Dinner Theatre puts on an upbeat performance of the show set in the Depression.

June 29, 2000|By Nelson Pressley | Nelson Pressley,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

They don't waste much time getting down to business in "42nd Street," the musical fable about a Pennsylvania gal who becomes a Broadway star overnight. And in "42nd Street" - currently getting an energetic, upbeat staging at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia - business means dancing.

"Julian Marsh is doing a show," the Depression-era dancers whisper excitedly almost as soon as the lights come up on the action.

Marsh is the prototypical Broadway director - a tyrant with a heart of gold - and before you can say "five-six-seven-eight" there are nine dancers hoofing to beat the band, hoping to land a role in Marsh's "Pretty Lady."

They're desperate for the work in these lean times, but "42nd Street" all but ignores the harsh realities of the Depression. This is the pinnacle of musical as pure escape.

The costumes, by Norah Shaw, are lavish and abundant: Chorines enter dressed as fruit baskets and candy boxes (no hunger here!). And the signature image of dancers hopping on top of giant dimes during "We're in the Money" is faithfully resurrected by choreographer Ilona Kessel.

Love and stardom

There is lots of time in this fanciful land of plenty for the stuff of dreams - love and stardom. Yet "42nd Street" cuts right to the chase: The show is hardly five minutes old when the robust young Billy Lawler sings to the young Peggy Sawyer, "I'm young and healthy, and you've got charms."

The plot is partly driven by the romantic intrigues of Dorothy Brock, the aging leading lady who is to be the star of Marsh's show.

Brock has two beaus, and since one of them is a sugar daddy who's backing the show, his happiness is important to Brock and Marsh.

But this is mainly a fairy tale about Peggy Sawyer, the tap-dancing phenomenon who has to learn the leading role in 36 hours after Brock is injured (a lucky break, since Brock can sing but isn't much on her feet).

There is little doubt that Peggy will be up to the challenge. Early in the show, when a few chorines showed her a step or two, leggy Peggy imitated them in double time, her feet hitting the floor with pistonlike precision.

Quick feet and a ready smile make Amy Pierson (whose high kicks are as smooth as a beauty queen's wave) as winning as Peggy.

As Billy, Larry Munsey works the same cheerful combination pretty effectively.

Lynne R. Sigler is a little cautious as Dorothy Brock, not consistently the diva you expect (although she pitches a wonderfully ridiculous fit when she has to do a number dressed as a Christmas tree).

Johnny Holliday soft-pedals the tough-guy side of Julian Marsh, but he has an easy way with the corny pep talks and speeches Marsh lapses into every so often.

Jill Shullenbarger, Terry Sweeney, Laurie Kraft and Andrew Horn make good impressions in supporting roles; the singing throughout the cast is generally strong, and the dancers are reasonably crisp.

Some awkwardness

The air seems to go out of some of the nonmusical scenes, and there is some awkward business with set designer Dave Eske's large, view-obstructing sleeper car (a rare instance when the problem of cumbersome set pieces in this in-the-round theater hasn't been solved by director Toby Orenstein).

But Orenstein generally keeps things moving smartly, and every now and then creates a fine, simple picture.

As romances meet obstacles at the end of the wistful "I Know Now," for instance, three characters are each isolated in their own pools of light, far apart on the stage.

That's an uncharacteristically sober moment. Most of this "42nd Street" is bright and peppy - not as sassy as it might be, certainly, but swift and light on its feet.

Toby's Dinner Theatre presents "42nd Street," music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Al Dublin, book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, through Sept. 10. Reservations and information: 410-730- 8311.

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