A marriage made in cotton-candy heaven♦
In his 24 years at the helm of the Walnut Street Theatre, producing artistic director Bernard Havard has built (a) the world’s largest subscriber base (more than 50,000) and (b) a reputation among derisive critics as the Maestro of Mainstream Middlebrow Marketing. Havard’s formula may not produce cutting-edge theatrical work, but it does generate one undisputed audience benefit: The Walnut is the only Philadelphia theater company capable of mounting a really big production.
You need large-scale production values to enjoy a cotton-candy banquet like 42nd Street, the 1980 Broadway show-biz musical based on Busby Berkeley’s classic 1933 musical film, and the Walnut’s production is more than equal to the task— offering a huge and energetic cast, 276 costumes, 115 pairs of dancing shoes, terrific tap dancers, strong voices, appealing actors who function seamlessly in ensemble, superb direction and inventive staging and sets to serve the show’s classic score (which includes old favorites like “Lullaby of Broadway,” “Go Into Your Dance,” “We’re in the Money,” “You’re Getting To Be a Habit With me,” and “Shuffle Off to Buffalo”) as well as its classic story (this is the mother of all shows about putting on a show). 42nd Street at the Walnut is a marriage made in heaven: a rare case of a large organization choosing a compatible vehicle and lavishing its huge resources wisely. You don’t laugh out loud too often in this 42nd Street, but it’s a stubborn curmudgeon indeed who won’t have a smile on his face throughout this production.
The plot is by now a camp cliché: In the depth of the Great Depression, the famous Broadway director Julian Marsh (Mark Jacoby, a strong baritone with a persona reminiscent of Dabney Coleman), decides to put on a musical, offering potential employment to dozens of starving young dancers. The hitch is that Marsh must cast the fading diva Dorothy Brock (Susan Cella) in the leading role because her sugar daddy is financing the show. The small-town novice Peggy Sawyer (Cara Cooper) breaks into the chorus line by the skin of her teeth, then is catapulted into the leading role when she collides with Brock during the dress rehearsal, breaking Brock’s leg. (By this time Brock has cast off her sugar daddy to marry her gigolo.)
Why would Brock’s sugar daddy continue to bankroll the show if Brock’s no longer in it and/or married to someone else? If Sawyer’s such a great dancer, how come she crashes into the show’s leading lady? Will you stop asking these logical questions already, disengage your brain and just enjoy the songs and dances?
“I’m a speck of dust in your show,” Peggy tells Julian at one point. “Put all those specks together and you have something big and beautiful.” That’s what Busby Berkeley did in 1933 and Gower Champion did in 1981, and it’s what Bernard Havard’s Walnut is doing right now.
One disquieting question
Was anyone else in the opening-night audience as uncomfortable as I about the scarceness of black faces in both the cast and the audience? Granted, 42nd Street recreates a bygone Broadway world that excluded blacks long after 1933 (even West Side Story and Subways Are For Sleeping in the ‘50s had no black performers). And granted, on the basis of the available local evidence (Mayor Street, say, or former mayor Wilson Goode), African-Americans seem genetically unsuited for the performing arts. But surely, with a little effort, some person of color somewhere could be taught to sing or dance. Would it be asking too much to make that effort?
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To view other reviews of 42nd Street, click here and here.
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