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Wednesday, 30 May 2012

I Heart 42nd Street

Kyle Blair as Billy Lawlor with members of the company.
Photo by David Hou.

42nd Street
Music by Harry Warren, Lyrics by Al Dubin.
Book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble; Based on the novel by Bradford Ropes

Original direction and dances by Gower Champion; Originally Produced on Broadway by David Merrick
Directed by Gary Griffin, Designed by Debra Hansen, Musical Direction by Michael Barber, Choreography by Alex Sanchez

Starring Jennifer Rider-Shaw, Sean Arbuckle and Cynthia Dale

The story: In the height of the depression, young and naive Peggy Sawyer arrives in New York to chase her dream of being a Broadway hoofer. She becomes a late addition to the chorus line for a new show by theatre legend Julian Marsh who desperately needs a hit. Her talent is evident and admired, but not by the leading lady, the stage veteran Dorothy Brock.  While Peggy learns the part, Dorothy and Julian continue to lock horns until opening night, when an accident leaves Dorothy unable to go on. Someone must take her place, and the success -or failure - of the show is suddenly riding on Peggy's small shoulders.

This is an old-fashioned, bold-as-brass stage musical. Set in the 1930's the costumes are lavish, the songs are big, recognizable and hummable, and the dancing is loud and literally toe-tapping. It should feel dated, but it doesn't. It should be a piece of fluff, but it isn't. Instead it is the story of an underdog, an everyman who makes good, and of  the people who rediscover their own dreams. It is a story with heart.

It is also a show with a lot of humour by way of inside jokes and pokes at musical theatre tropes, and some vaudevillian slapstick to boot. When a character quips that "for $4.40 a seat" the dancing has to be spectacular, the audience (who paid considerably more) gives an appreciative laugh. As another warns the naive Peggy about male musicians, the fellows in the visible orchestra audibly protest. Julian Marsh passionately declares "musical comedy" two of the most important words in the English language.

Cynthia Dale as Dorothy Brock.
Photo by David Hou
One such inside poke must be the casting of Cynthia Dale as Dorothy Brock. Dorothy is an "experienced" stage actress, hired for the lead of Marsh's show, but not able to dance as well as the younger chorus girls. In an art-imitating-life-imitating-art sort of way, Ms. Dale has tongue firmly planted in cheek as she Divas her way through the role, but she also imbues Dorothy with vulnerability and unexpected kindness. She leads the curtain-call tap number - unlike Dorothy Brock, Ms. Dale was never to be doubted.

The show's true lead belongs to the actress playing Peggy Sawyer, however, and in this case Jennifer Rider-Shaw is simply perfect. Dimples Shirley Temple would die for and a 1000-kilowatt smile, Ms. Rider-Shaw looks and sounds the part of an innocent who finds her place, her voice gradually growing richer and more nuanced as her character learns. She provides the heart of the show, her faith in the power of Broadway undiminished, reawakening the enthusiasm of the show's jaded producer, played by Sean Arbuckle.

Jennifer Rider-Shaw and Sean Arbuckle as
Peggy Sawyer and Julian Marsh.
Photo by David Hou.
The character of Julian Marsh could read like a man with one nerve left, or one who reeks of desperation. Sean Arbuckle manages to avoid both traps and gives the producer  an aura of gravity and power, a man strong enough to make tough decisions, handle Dorothy Brock and yet deliver some of the best comic lines completely dead-pan. It could be because of this power there seems to be more chemistry between Peggy and the Producer than Peggy and Billy Lawlor, her love-interest, but it is not to the detriment of the story - in fact Mr. Arbuckle illustrates exactly how someone cynical can be re-seduced by the light of a dream. One is left with the feeling that a mutual respect and partnership has been born, and Mr. Arbuckle radiates the producer's rediscovered joy and literally infects the audience with it.

One cannot review a song-and-dance show without mentioning the dancing - in this case, mostly tap-dancing. Simply put, it is killer. Jennifer Rider-Shaw, Kyle Blair and all the ladies and gents of the chorus can tap-dance like demons, with such fleetness of feet they literally become a blur, sequins flying as fast as their toes. Such energy should be harnessed as a power source, and if there is not a sudden increase in desire for tap lessons, I will eat one of those feathered headdresses. Equally fast are the costume changes - so many and so dramatically different that they require ten wardrobe attendants backstage who deservedly get their applause. Also deserving of praise are the costume builders - they were designed by Debra Hansen, but there is an unspeakable amount of sequins that were sewn for this show.
Naomi Costain and Geoffrey Tyler as
Anytime Annie and Bert Barry.
Photo by David Hou.

One other mention should go to the tag team of Gabrielle Jones and Geoffrey Tyler as Maggie Jones and Bert Barry, the show-within-a-show's writers. At first their purpose just seems to be line-quippers and ego-strokers, but Ms. Jones' Broadway voice, and Mr. Tyler's vaudevillian comedy are showcased near the end of the play to great and appreciative amazement.

Go see 42nd Street out of a love for musical comedy, but appreciate it for its heart.

It continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 28th.
Sean Arbuckle as Julian Marsh.
Photo by David Hou.


  1. i really enjoy this website Robyn, thanks. i can't help wonder, though, about all the recent accolades for the return of cynthia dale. i don't like her and i never will, in this particular role she is just being herself, so the role isn't a stretch at all. the rest of the cast deserve the kudos for such incredible performances, not her. i don't think she should have been given the part and i don't think she should be back at stratford.sorry, just one opinion! a stratford theatre fan.

  2. I don't personally know Ms. Dale, so I can't comment on if she is just being herself in the role. But everyone is entitled to their opinion, Anonymous, and theatre is such a subjective thing - I'm glad to have your thoughts on the production. ~RG


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