BWW Reviews: Western Carolina Brings Back Gower Champion's 'Dancing Feet' in 42ND STREET

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This writer loathes a very late review of a show; however, she excuses herself with the claims of family illness that was then passed on to the author. While playing nurse, however, and while suffering herself - and also while being forced to review other shows while in discomfort, she consoled herself by humming music that was cheerily stuck in her head. A few weeks later, she is still humming the songs from 42ND STREET, recently performed at Western Carolina University. More than one show seen since then has had far worse tunes that have failed to replace this show's earworms.

And really, there's not much better out there to hum. Musicals have gotten bigger, louder, and less book-oriented than Michael Stewart's and Mark Bramble's 1980 adaptation, with plenty of extra Harry Warren and Al Dubin songs, of the 1933 movie musical, but to be perfectly honest, the musical styles now may be different, but they aren't any better than the work of Warren and Dubin. Again, to be frank, the movie, which was nominated for an Academy Award the year it came out, may have contributed half of the stage musical's dialogue as well as the music, but it's a movie, even with Ruby Keeler in it, that hasn't aged well; the stage adaptation, on the other hand, is a joy, and has been for nearly 35 years.

Western Carolina director Terrence Mann agrees. "It's 42ND STREET. It's amazing. I saw it opening night on Broadway, the night David Merrick announced that Gower Champion had died. I enjoyed it thoroughly."

Champion was the choreographer of the stage musical, and one of Broadway's and Hollywood's dance legends along with his wife Marge (the 1951 MGM remake of SHOW BOAT should satisfy anyone's need for proof). Unfortunately, most regional productions of 42ND STREET substitute new routines for the classic choreography of the original production. What a relief to have this production, then, choreographed by WCU faculty member Karyn Tomczak. Though she now teaches dance, the former Rockette and veteran of several productions of the show, including the first European tour, is familiar with Champion's original choreography and restored it for this production. Though the show's been revived, Tomczak notes that "I'm a big fan of the original choreography. Especially for the ballet. The revival's choreography wasn't as effective."

The classic opening of the show, of course, is to an only partly-raised curtain, so that an audience can see nothing but a line of perfectly synchronized tap-dancing feet. At least, that's what should be seen - some regional productions fail at that synchronicity, but Tomczak's students certainly upheld the standard for proper execution of the scene.

This writer's reaction to any production of this classic relies on the acting skills of the actor playing director Julian Marsh, the comedy skills of the actors playing Maggie Jones and Bert Barry, and the vocal skills of the singer playing Dorothy Brock, as well as the deep concern... can whoever is playing Peggy Sawyer, the ingénue star, really dance her heart out? Given that she's in competition with the classic image of Ruby Keeler dancing, there's a lot at stake there. Will Bryant's Julian Marsh was more than sufficiently commanding, and his solo in "Lullaby of Broadway" is one of the better ones this writer has heard recently. Maggie and Bert, played by Cierra Sokoloski and Cory Phelps, did the parts justice, especially in the classic "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" scene. If done properly, that song is an earworm waiting to happen, and this writer was indeed bitten by it, badly. Victoria Ortigo was a more than suitable diva as Dorothy, and her duet of "About a Quarter to Nine" (another Warren/Dubin earworm if ever there was one) was nearly perfect and, with Bryant's "Lullaby of Broadway," sufficient justification for anyone to see the production.

Tomczak justly can be proud of Sydney Troxler, who played Peggy Sawyer, the naïve girl from Allentown who has the dance skills of... well, let's face it, Ruby Keeler. Troxler may not yet be Keeler in real life, but it's her dancing that carries much of the second act, as she takes over the show for a disabled Dorothy Brock.

Although last season's LES MISERABLES at Western Carolina was full of talent, as is this, overall this production was far more successful. Mann and Tomczak have succeeded in creating a production that, despite an entirely student cast, was far superior to several regional productions of the same show this past year, including ones seen by this author. The restoration of Gower Champion's choreography is one of the highlights of the production, and one may only hope it will encourage other directors and choreographers to do the same.

For further information on Western Carolina University productions this year, visit the university's website at www.wcu.edu.

Photo Credit: Western Carolina University



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