The Pittsburgh Playhouse’s production of 42nd Street showcases the depth and strength of dancing and singing talent within Point Park University’s Conservatory Theatre Company.
Based upon the 1933 Busby Berkley motion picture of the same name, 42nd Street was directed and choreographed on Broadway by the legendary Gower Champion. It opened on Broadway in 1980 and ran for nine years! The show’s directorial pedigree calls for extravagant dance numbers. The Conservatory’s staging by director and choreographer Eileen Grace (who was in the original Broadway production) holds true to that tradition.
The story centers on the efforts by the aging and down on his luck impresario Julian Marsh (Jeremy Spoljarick) to launch a new Broadway musical “Pretty Ladies” in the midst of the Great Depression. Dorothy Brock (Nora Krupp) is his intended leading lady, a prima donna, as in “I don’t audition.” The veteran actress is in the midst of a relationship with her and the show’s sugar daddy, Abner Dillon (Kevin Gilmond) and her old boyfriend actor Pat Denning (Drew Campbell-Amberg).
Into this mess arrives the fresh-faced ingénue Peggy Sawyer (Halle Mastroberardino), straight off the train from Allentown, Pennsylvania, with dreams of a role in the show’s chorus, only to be turned away for arriving late to the audition. Peggy is befriended by Billy Lawlor (Kurt Kemper), Maggie (Kalya Muldoon) one of the show’s writers, and several of the chorus girls (including anytime Annie (Emily Stoken), Phyllis (Kayley Jewel) and Lorraine (Kyra Smith). All instantly recognize Peggy as one hot babe who sings and dances better than any other girl on the line. They persuade Julian to hire her as the extra, spare, 13th girl for the chorus, just in case. During the opening night’s performance, someone bumps into Peggy, who trips and crashes into Dorothy, who breaks her ankle. Julien immediately fires Peggy and announces the show is closing, that night! No star, no show! Is there someone who has the talent and looks to take over? Peggy anyone?
Today we might call this a jukebox musical, where the plot serves mostly to connect the hit songs including “We’re in the Money,” “Young and Healthy,” “Lullaby of Broadway,” “About a Quarter to Nine,” “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” and the iconic title song “42nd Street”
The show has legendary dance numbers, incredible songs, beautiful costumes, strong singers and exceptional dancers, yet in this production, something doesn’t quite click. Director and Choreographer Eileen Grace has done a fabulous job with the dance numbers; they are vibrant and elegant. The company executes them flawlessly with abundant enthusiasm. The company possesses bright, clear, character-appropriate singing voices. The costumes by Michael Montgomery are period appropriate, and the gowns are beautiful. Some are perfectly tailored, some reflect their borrowed nature, edging near wardrobe malfunctions.
What to me seems to be missing is the sense of an emotional relationship between the characters. The intensity of the acting performances at time lacks subtleness, becoming almost caricatures rather than complex characters. Individual performances by Mastroberardino as Peggy and Kemper’s Billy, along with Krupp’s Dorothy and Campbell-Amber are solid, but the chemistry in their respective relationships is non-existent. Spoljarick delivers Julian as a shouting and dominating director and only briefly reveals the despair of a famed director seeking his chance to regain his stature. Mastroberardino gives Peggy the innocence and geekiness of a talented, but unsure theatre nerd. For supporting roles; Kayla Muldoon strikes the right balance as Maggie Jones, the writer who befriends Peggy and Emily Stoken’s chorus girl Anytime Annie is a standout. Natalie Hightower has some funny bits as Agnes, the piano player.
Delivery at times tends to be a bit shrill, perhaps a function of the actor’s vocal ranges but probably not helped by the overly loud, crisp and in your face sound design by Steve Shapiro as mixed by Rachael Trindade.
Johnmichael Bohach set design steers clear of the typical overused marquee look of Times Square; he frees up about as much of the stage space for the big dance numbers as is possible.
42nd Street is a big show to stage that requires a lot of time and resources. This often in short supply with a university company. In addition to the four lead roles, Peggy, Billy, Dorothy, and Julian, there are another fifteen or so supporting characters, along with a large chorus/ensemble of tap dancers. The eighteen musical numbers include an unbelievable amount of costume changes as well.
All this would be enough to challenge even the most seasoned company of professionals and challenge any director. The Point Park Conservatory’s production isn’t perfect, at times it feels frenetic and unfocused. Yet Eileen Grace’s beautifully choreographed and executed lavish production numbers (Did I mention tap dancing galore?) and those famous songs under Camille Rolla’s musical direction are worth seeing and hearing just for the numbers themselves.
42nd Street is at the Pittsburgh Playhouse Rockwell Theatre from now through March 25th. For tickets click here.
Photos by John Altdorfer
Categories: Archived Reviews