“You’re going out there a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!”
– Julian Marsh in “42nd Street”
If you’re old enough to remember the 1933 movie “42nd Street,” or even the Broadway musical of the same name that won the Tony for Best Musical and Best Choreography and ran for an astonishing 3,486 performances in its first run from 1980-1989 (with another 1,524 performances in a 2001-2005 revival), that iconic line delivered by the director of the show within the show says it all. Peggy Sawyer, a chorus girl appearing in her first Broadway show, is facing an understudy’s best dream and worst nightmare – she’s been asked to replace the leading lady (yay!), but has only 36 hours to learn the singing, dancing and dialogue before the show opens (gulp!).
In the new production at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace, director Michael Heitzman, choreographer Jared Grimes, music director Roberta Duchak and music arranger Everett Bradley have taken this 84-year-old story and infused it with 21st century life. With accompaniments that occasionally feature electronic music, plus amazing choreography, this is not your grandfather’s “42nd Street.”
The updates start at the top of the show as the orchestra – positioned on two levels above the back of the stage – performs an overture, while Julian Marsh (memorably played by that wonderful wizard from “Wicked,” Gene Weygandt) imagines, in slow motion, a scene from his new 1930s Broadway show, “Pretty Lady.” After the overture, we flash back to the end of chorus line auditions for “Pretty Lady” and the late arrival of Peggy (Kimberly Immanuel), a naïve, nervous and talented singer/dancer from Allentown, Pennsylvania. Peggy catches the eye of the show’s flirtatious male star, Billy Lawler (Phillip Attmore), but how can she get into “Pretty Lady” if they’ve finished casting? Julian, meanwhile, has his own challenge: show financing is dependent on Dorothy Brock (played by soulful singer Suzzanne Douglas) having the lead role, but Dorothy hasn’t been in a hit in a decade, she has diva-style demands and she’s juggling the attentions of both the financier and Pat Denning (Brandon Springman), a beau she’s enamored with but must keep in the shadows. Can Peggy and Dorothy find success on stage and in love?
The plot of “42nd Street” is straightforward, the lighting design by Mike Baldassari helps spotlight (literally) key reactions on stage, and the leads are very well cast, but what elevates this show into the stratosphere is the dancing. Production numbers of familiar tunes such as “Go Into Your Dance” and “We’re in the Money” (which some may only have heard on Illinois Lottery commercials in the past) involve virtually the entire cast. “We’re in the Money,” in particular, is an Act I ending showstopper that includes a synchronized, beautifully choreographed tap dance with a ton of coins under each dancer’s feet. And, for those who want more traditional music arrangements that focus more on the voice than the feet, this production has you covered there, too, with Act II’s “Lullaby of Broadway,” in which Julian and the many friends Peggy has made behind the scenes serenade Peggy at a Philadelphia train station.
The stage design includes a very effective, functional, multi-level series of platforms and stairs for entrances, exits, dialogue and songs. But don’t expect huge backdrops or major set pieces. Transitions from a rehearsal stage to a dressing room or diner are handled by cast members with grace, as they roll in just a few items (a couch, floor lamp, diner counter) to help change the scene.
The standing ovation at the end of the performance was well-deserved. For a show that’s been performed more than 5,000 times in New York City, this production feels very new. It’s a fun mixture of backstage and onstage drama, romance, great singing and jaw-dropping choreography. 100 Drury Lane is clearly the right address for “42nd Street.”
• Paul Lockwood is a past president of TownSquare Players and an occasional community theater actor, appearing in more than 30 plays, musicals and revues since he and his wife moved to Woodstock in 2001. Recent shows include “On Golden Pond,” “9 to 5: The Musical,” “A Christmas Carol” (2014, 2016), “Into the Woods” and “The Drowsy Chaperone.” He’s also performed in Get LIT(erary) and Williams St. Repertory LAB Series dramatic readings.
WHEN: Through Jan. 7
WHERE: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
COST & INFO: In this beloved Broadway classic, Peggy Sawyer lands a bigger break in New York City than expected. When the leading lady injures her ankle, Peggy gets the chance of a lifetime to rise from showgirl to star. Tickets start at $47. Tickets and information: 630-530-0111 or www.drurylanetheatre.com.