Story: Aspiring performer Peggy Sawyer arrives from her home town of Allentown, Pennsylvania just a few minutes after auditions have been held for legendary Broadway director Julian Marsh’s latest extravaganza, Pretty Lady. It’s 1933 and America, including Marsh, is in the throes of the Great Depression.
Peggy is frustrated at missing her opportunity, but brash young tenor Billy Lawlor, who sees her arrive, tries to finagle a way for her to meet Marsh. Although that fails, sympathetic writer Maggie Jones and some chorus girls invite Peggy to lunch. When Marsh witnesses an impromptu dance routine by Peggy and the chorines he makes room for one more dancer.
The show needs money to survive, which arrives in the form of aging diva Dorothy Brock and her sugar daddy, Abner Dillon. When Peggy accidentally knocks down Dorothy during a tryout performance, Marsh fires Peggy immediately. Faced with the show’s closure because of Dorothy’s broken leg, the other cast members urge Marsh to insert Peggy into the starring role. It’s stardom or bust for Peggy and success or the breadlines for the others.
Highlights: The Muny’s second production of its 2016 season is a glittering and glorious salute to the heyday of the old-fashioned Broadway musical, dressed up in the contemporary choreography and very inventive direction of Denis Jones. While Julian Marsh tells Peggy to “think of musical comedy – the most glorious words in the English language,” The Muny’s presentation transcends thought with infectious, uplifting energy. This 42nd Street is an avenue of joyous experience.
Other Info: As Dennis Brown observes in his piece in The Muny program, 42nd Street is the only show to close one Muny season (in 1985) and open the subsequent one (1986). Since then The Muny has staged 42nd Street an additional five times, with never more than eight years between productions.
Written by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, 42nd Street was based on a novel by Bradford Ropes and the 1933 movie musical of the same name. The original Broadway show ran for nearly 3,500 performances following its debut on August 25, 1980, at which famed Broadway producer (and native St. Louisan) David Merrick announced to a stunned opening-night audience that director Gower Champion had died earlier that day.
Combined with more than 1,500 presentations of the 2001 Broadway revival, 42nd Street enjoyed more than 5,000 performances on the Great White Way. It can be daunting attempting to mount a production of a show that won the 1981 Tony Award for Best Musical as well as a 2001 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. The current interpretation at The Muny, however, has some of the most spectacular numbers you’re likely to see on a stage anywhere.
There’s one dazzling piece after another, each seemingly better than its predecessor. For sheer entertainment value, though, it’s hard to top We’re in the Money, the penultimate number in the first act. Following a clever bit with the reprise of I Only Have Eyes for You, in which several chorus girls “blink” huge cardboard eyes that open and close, Jones pulls out all the stops with a truly spectacular and irrepressible dance amidst giant dimes that serve as mini-platforms for his dancers.
He doesn’t stop there, though. With the invaluable assistance of Matthew Young’s innovative video design, his dancers are first mirrored and then re-formed on the screen above and behind the stage to the wide-eyed rapture of the audience. That is what is known as a show-stopper.
Casting is impeccable in this 42nd Street. Shuler Hensley is dynamic as the notorious Marsh, portraying him as powerful but not heartless, imposing but not inaccessible. His Marsh commands the respect of his colleagues partly through fear but also through his knowledge of the business and his survival instincts.
Hensley’s absence of singing in Act I makes his rendering of The Lullaby of Broadway all the more compelling midway through Act II, when Marsh implores Peggy at the train station to return to the show, aided by the appearance of a tap-dancing ensemble who convince Peggy in dazzling fashion.
There are several other strong performances, including amusing turns by Ann Harada and Jason Kravits as Pretty Lady co-writers Maggie Jones and Bert Barry, scribes who know how to placate the hard-driving Marsh but have a soft spot for the kids in the ensemble as well.
Emily Skinner conveys the haughty arrogance of Dorothy as well as her lingering love for Pat Denning, her one-time vaudeville partner who has all the romantic charm that lumbering if affectionate Abner lacks. Skinner’s beautiful voice fills a number of winning ballads, including You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me, I Only Have Eyes for You and the affecting A Quarter to Nine that she sings in a duet with Jonalyn Saxer as Peggy.
Saxer is ideal in the role of the impressionable Peggy, showcasing magnificent dancing talents in addition to a fine voice and a solid comic touch. She has engaging chemistry both with Jay Armstrong Johnson as the unflappable Billy and Shuler as the intimidating Marsh. As for Johnson, he demonstrates the likability and plucky resolve of Billy in fine form.
There’s also splendid work by Joey Sorge as Pat Denning, Fred Zimmerman as Abner Dillon and Bryan Thomas Hunt as Pretty Lady choreographer Andy Lee. St. Louis favorites Rich Pisarkiewicz and Patrick Blindauer are at their best as rehearsal pianist Oscar and stage manager Mac, respectively.
Megan Sikora shines as fast-talking chorine “Anytime” Annie, with Darien Crago, Amy Van Norstrand, Madison Johnson, Emily Kelly and Berklea Going as her hoofer pals in the chorus line.
Michael Schweikardt provides the impressive, multi-dimensional set design that is brilliantly illuminated with Rob Denton’s lighting. A dazzling and dizzying array of costumes is the work of costume designer Andrea Lauer, with notable assistance by wig designer Leah Loukas, along with sound design by John Shivers and David Patridge.
Ben Whiteley’s musical direction is inspired, as it has to be to keep up with Jones’ manic vision of this always busy 42nd Street. It has to be a joy for the top-notch Muny orchestra to perform the music of Harry Warren that complements the lyrics of Al Dubin.
Even if you’ve attended the previous six Muny productions of 42nd Street, you likely won’t see anything quite as consistently surprising and appealing as the current rendition. Come on along and listen to, and experience the rapture of, The Lullaby of Broadway.
Musical: 42nd Street
Company: The Muny
Venue: The Muny in Forest Park
Dates: Through June 30
Tickets: Free to $90; contact 314-534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Philip Hamel and Eric Woolsey