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Arts & Entertainment

Theater Review: 42nd Street

From Issue: Volume XX - Number 22

By Ben Miles

Best known as a 1933 movie musical spotlighting Busby Berkeley’s spectacular choreography, “42nd Street” began as a novel, authored by Bradford Ropes. It wasn’t until 1980 that “42nd Street” was transfigured into a stage musical – with a book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, lyrics by Al Dubin and music by Harry Warren. Under the frail Gower Champion’s inspired direction and crafty choreography, “42nd Street” went on to win the 1981 Tony Award for Best Musical. Champion received trophies both for Best Direction and Best Choreography. It was the last show of his life.

“42nd Street” also had a much acclaimed Broadway revival in 2001, winning the Drama Desk Award that year for Best Revival of a Musical, as well as earning a Tony Award for Christine Ebersole for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical.

Now, the rarely produced “42nd Street” is being mounted by Long Beach’s Musical Theatre West, and with Jon Engstrom’s inventive direction and choreography, along with Michael Borth’s meticulous musical direction, “42nd Street” marries bustle and beat; the result is irresistible.

Offering up such timeless tunes as “You’re Getting to be a Habit With Me,” We’re in the Money,” “Lullaby of Broadway” and, of course, “Forty-second Street,” the story is a simple one that is simply archetypal: An ingénue named Peggy Sawyer (a rhythmically gifted Tessa Grady) comes to audition for mega director Julian Marsh’s new musical, “Pretty Lady” (Marsh is ably portrayed by the striking Damon Kirsche). On the show’s opening night, the leading lady, Dorothy Brock (a scene-swiping Tracy Lore), literally breaks her leg. “Pretty Lady” appears condemned to be a Broadway no-show; that is until Peggy, in an effort to save the production and in the determined spirit of the-show-must-go-on, consents to take over the role in Dorothy’s stead. Peggy, however, has only 36 hours to prepare for her starring debut.

With skyscraper high production values (sets and props provided by Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston, Inc.), eye-dazzling costumes (by The Theatre Company), indispensible lighting work (by Jean-Yves Tessier), and a state-of-the-art sound design (by Julie Ferrin) we are treated to over a dozen and a half song and dance routines, in two acts. The numbers range from light and delightful ditties such as “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” to moving love songs like “I Only Have Eyes for You.”

With a small army of well-honed performers, “42nd Street” is an artistic feat and athletic achievement designed to please and thrill theatergoers of all ages. Other standout performers include tap dancer extraordinaire Jamie Torcellini as Bert Barry. When he teams with the show’s ladies for a rendition of “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” we are enthralled and thoroughly amused. Additionally, Zach Hess is perfectly vulnerable and entirely endearing as young Billy Lawlor. Hess’ showstopper comes in “Dames.” Here Hess’ fancy footwork is on admirable display. Also, Barbara Carlton Heart is a standout amidst a cast of standouts. Her lovable embodiment of Maggie Jones is a tribute to great character acting – in the tradition of Eve Arden and Nanette Fabray. What’s more, Heart’s quintet-sized song and dance do-up, “Get Into Your Dance,” provides an early sample of the enormity of talent at work on this “42nd Street.”

“42nd Street,” a Musical Theatre West production, continues at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., through Nov. 11. Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. Matinees are Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. There is also a Sunday performance on November 4 at 7 p.m. For reservations, call (562) 856-1999 Ext. 4. For online ticketing and further information, visit