BWW Review: 42ND STREET at Ogunquit Playhouse: That's a WOW!
Music by Harry Warren, Lyrics by Al Dubin, Book by Michael Stewart & Mark Bramble, Based on the novel by Bradford Ropes; Original Direction and Dances by Gower Champion; Originally produced on Broadway by David Merrick; Director/Choreographer, Randy Skinner; Associate Choreographer, Sara Brians; Music Director, Jeffrey Campos; Original Scenic Design, Douglas Schmidt; Lighting Design, Richard Latta; Costume Design, Roger Kirk; Sound Design, Ed Chapman; Wig/Hair & Make Up Design, Roxanne De Luna; Production Stage Manager, Karen Parlato
CAST (in order of speaking appearance): Jake Weinstein, Sally Struthers, Kilty Reidy, Patrick Heffernan, Lily Lewis, Melissa Schott, Allison Blanchard, Megan McLaughlin, Brianna Latrash, Con O'Shea-Creal, Jessica Wockenfuss, Ryan Koerber, Steve Blanchard, Rachel York, Cliff Bemis, Ryan K. Bailer, Willie Beaton II, Tommy Joscelyn, Andrew Muylle, Quinten Patrick Busey, Alex Drost, Alex John Johnson; Ensemble: Danielle Aliotta, Emily Applebaum, Brittany Cattaruzza, Liz Friedmann, Trent Kidd, Elizabeth McGuire, Kristen Welsh
Performances through July 13 at Ogunquit Playhouse, Rte. 1, Ogunquit, Maine; Box Office 207-646-5511 or www.OgunquitPlayhouse.org/42nd-street
There's an unmistakeable sound of thunder emanating from the Ogunquit Playhouse these days, commencing with the rhythmic pounding of nearly two dozen pairs of feet, and ending in a crescendo of audience applause. It is not fulsome praise to give Director/Choreographer Randy Skinner multiple huzzahs and many pats on the back for this fresh and exciting production of 42nd Street, the iconic show-biz musical about a small town girl who pursues her dream and takes Broadway by storm. From the grownups to the kids in the chorus, Tony Award-nominee Skinner seamlessly blends stage veterans and non-Equity performers into one sparkling, magical troupe that really knows how to put on a show.
Now in its 87th season of producing (mostly) musical theatre, the Ogunquit Playhouse knows a thing or two about putting on a show, as well, and 42nd Street is the ultimate celebration of the genre. Based on the novel by Bradford Ropes and the 1933 Warner Brothers' film of the same name, the show opened on Broadway in 1980 and ran for more than eight years. The 2001 revival played for nearly four years, and both versions toured nationally and internationally, including a recent two-year stint in the West End. Skinner has been involved since the original Broadway production, yet finds ways to infuse this latest iteration with contemporary pizzazz without sacrificing the honesty and simplicity of the era.
42nd Street begins on an incredibly energetic high note with the stage packed with young hopefuls auditioning for a new Broadway show. Andy Lee (Jake Weinstein, crazy-good tapper), the choreographer, is front and center in his glossy yellow shoes, teaching them the dance steps for Pretty Lady, the next big production from Director Julian Marsh (Steve Blanchard). After the chorus line is virtually cast, Peggy Sawyer (Jessica Wockenfuss) rushes in, seemingly too late, but Billy Lawlor (Con O'Shea-Creal), the tenor with a toothpaste smile, is charmed by her and finagles a chance for her to show her stuff. The gruff Marsh decides he can use an extra chorine and Sawyer, who can dance rings around the established hoofers, is hired. In a throwback to the day, there is no backstage backbiting and everyone loves the innocent girl from Allentown.
Well, everyone except the star of the show, Dorothy Brock (Rachel York), a diva whose better days are behind her. However, Brock's sugar daddy is financing the show and the writing team of Maggie Jones (the inimitable trouper Sally Struthers) and Bert Barry (Kilty Reidy) insist that Abner Dillon (Cliff Bemis) and his money get to make the casting decision. Haughty and entitled, Brock behaves abominably and challenges Marsh, but he cedes no power to her. Sawyer rubs her the wrong way and the two embark on a collision course to an incident that supplies the drama and changes everything.
No matter what happens, the show must go on, and 42nd Street demonstrates how it is done, with the writers adding or subtracting songs and scenes at the last minute, tempo or key changes made to accommodate the talent (or lack of) of an actor, or throwing an inexperienced understudy into the spotlight. The terrific score by Harry Warren (music) and Al Dubin (lyrics) alternates between musical numbers that are part of the show within the show (such as "Shadow Waltz," beautifully enhanced by Richard Latta's lighting design; "We're in the Money," one of several glitzy production numbers; the novelty tune "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," set in a Pullman car; and the climactic "Forty-Second Street"), and songs that advance the story or develop a character ("Getting Out of Town," "I Only Have Eyes For You," and "Lullaby of Broadway").
From the top-billed to the bit players and everyone in between, the cast of 29 and the seven-piece orchestra, under the direction of Jeffrey Campos, draw you into the world of the backstage musical, with all of the hard work, desire, joy, and struggles it takes to pull it off. Blanchard's strength is the consistency of his portrayal, tough and demanding on the outside, but harboring the heart and sensibility of the artist on the inside. It is the latter quality that informs his big speech to Peggy when he finds her at the train station on her way back to Allentown, and Blanchard makes the moment work. York brings out the duality of Brock's personality, deliciously capturing her fiery, don't-tread-on-me side, and morphing into the warmer woman in love. She sings nicely with others, but wows in Dorothy's anguished "I Only Have Eyes For You."
Wockenfuss is a triple threat and indefatigable like the character she plays. Sawyer's journey from wide-eyed girl to show-stopping star is fully realized in the hands (and feet) of Wockenfuss. She shares great chemistry with her fellow chorus girls Annie (Megan McLaughlin), Phyllis (Lily Lewis), and Lorraine (Melissa Schott), and the charismatic and energetic Billy. Back on the boards at the playhouse for the umpteenth time, Struthers shows off a Merman-esque belt and a few nifty dance steps, but mostly displays her well-honed comic timing, pulling out laughs from the tiniest snippets of dialogue like a New Englander rescuing the last morsel of meat from a lobster claw. Along with Reidy, they play the writing pair like a couple accustomed to finishing each other's sentences and loving the process of working together. Bemis and Ryan K. Bailer (Pat Denning) are distinctive in their supporting roles, and Ryan Koerber deserves a special shout-out for his exceptional mime/dance performance as the pickpocket in the 42nd Street production number.
Ogunquit Playhouse has the benefit of Douglas Schmidt's original scenic design, with Latta's lighting, and sound by Ed Chapman. Roger Kirk's costumes and Roxanne De Luna's wig/hair and make up design are evocative of the 1930s. The gestalt of the design elements makes for a glitzy, glamorous, and vibrant production that is a feast for the eyes and the ears. If you've seen 42nd Street before, I assure you that Skinner provides many reasons to revisit it. If you haven't previously taken the journey, head to that beautiful place by the sea where the sound of thundering taps is competing with the roar of the ocean. You just might find yourself dancing all the way home.
Photo credit: Gary Ng (Jessica Wockenfuss and the Ensemble)