Cast proves the show must go on

THEATER

`42nd' delivers even with job action

Theater Review

October 03, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Part of the thrill of live theater is that it's a little different each night. But Tuesday's opening performance of 42nd Street at the Mechanic Theatre differed more than most.

No one who attended that performance is likely to forget it - and not just because of the crackerjack, show-must-go-on spirit of the cast.

The performance began with an unscripted speech by Patrick Ryan Sullivan, who plays director Julian Marsh in this quintessential backstage musical. "We can promise you that we are going to give you a production of 42nd Street unlike any that you have ever seen," Sullivan announced after explaining that due to a labor dispute the audience was going to see a "modified version" of the show.

The dispute concerns box office employees, who walked off their jobs a few hours before the opening. Arriving theatergoers were greeted by a dozen orderly pickets.

The "modified" performance turned out to lack most of the scenery and costume changes, a circumstance that came about because the stagehands, who are members of the same union as the box office staff, honored the picket line. (The rest of the run is expected to continue as scheduled, with some additional scenery.)

What Tuesday's audience saw was one of Broadway's glitziest revivals stripped down to its bare essentials. If Samuel Beckett had written a Broadway musical, this is what it might have looked like.

Fortunately, however, 42nd Street - which was adapted by Michael Stewart and Maryland native Mark Bramble from the 1933 Busby Berkeley movie and the Bradford Ropes novel on which it was based - is basically about dance. Sure, it has a plot about a leading lady who breaks her ankle and the chorus girl who goes on in her place.

But as the opening lyric of the title song says: "Come and meet those dancin' feet," and on Tuesday those feet tap-danced their hearts out. Though the choreography by Randy Skinner - who assisted the late Gower Champion on the original 1980 production - was performed without staircases or train cars, or just about any of the other scenery, the show's spirit came shining through, as did its chestnut-laden score, which augments the Harry Warren-Al Dubin songs from the movie with a dozen others from their catalog.

Nor did it hurt that 42nd Street is actually about the very notion that the show must go on. This synchronicity wasn't lost on the audience. Theatergoers laughed knowingly at various lines - most delivered by Sullivan's character, director Marsh - such as: "Not all the scenery and costumes have arrived," referring to the out-of-town tryout of the musical's show-within-a-show.

Having seen this Tony Award-winning revival (directed by Bramble) on Broadway, I know it features hundreds of glittery 1930s-style costumes by Roger Kirk and colorful sets by Douglas W. Schmidt, not to mention period wigs and sparkling lighting.

On Tuesday, audiences saw actors who, for the most part, wore their first scene costumes - period rehearsal clothes - and performed on a largely bare stage with a red velvet backdrop. But while the trappings were definitely missed, their absence was compensated for by a large, young cast that, like the characters they portray, clearly wanted to dance before a live audience more than anything else.

From Sullivan, as the gruff director, to exuberant hoofer Catherine Wreford as Peggy Sawyer, to bluesy voiced Blair Ross as the star Peggy replaces, the cast delivered the goods.

In the end, far from musical comedy of the absurd, the performance showcased a talented ensemble that reinforced the most essential element of live theater - actors and audiences sharing an experience that exists in the moment and is never exactly the same way twice.

42nd Street

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. tonight-Saturday, 6:30 p.m. Sunday, matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $25-$72.50

Call: 410-481-SEAT

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