What better way to celebrate American independence than with a mediocre production of a show that's barely a musical to begin with?
Okay, that's not fair, and I know it. 42nd Street was never meant to be serious theatre. It was meant to be frivolous, silly fun full of great songs, corny jokes, lots of beautiful women, and tons of great tap dancing. What more does anyone really need? Invention would be nice. Zest. Real theatrical know-how. But I'm getting ahead of myself, I think.
I first saw the revival on April 29, 2002. In other words, just a few days before its original opening. My feeling then was one of abject boredom and considerable disappointment. It struck me then as particularly odd that it was possible to have a couple dozen men and women onstage all doing exquisitely precise tap dancing to some great music ("We're In the Money," or the show's title song) and have it be incredibly boring and anything but energizing. At the time, I chalked this up to two serious casting problems: Christine Ebersole as the tempestuous star Dorothy Brock, and Kate Levering as Peggy Sawyer, the chorus girl who replaces her at the last minute and, we are to infer, becomes a star herself.
I'm happy to report that those two problems have vanished. True, Kate Levering left a long time ago, and Meredith Patterson has been playing the role for quite a while. But she's fine. Better than fine, really, for the most part. Her acting and singing are much stronger than Levering, that's for sure--with Patterson in the role, it's not like there's a huge void of drama and personality shuffling and flapping around the stage every 30 seconds. I remain unconvinced about Patterson's dancing, though. While she is very good, is she as good as Levering? I personally thought she lacked the grace with which Levering moved about the stage, and it always looked like she was working, never letting the steps just come.
Leavel, however, was a more marked improvement over Ebersole. Ebersole, who probably gave one of the worst performances in recent memory every to be awarded a Tony, looked bored throughout, like the role was so small and insignificant as to not bear more than a mere thought. Her eyes always seemed half-closed, her dramatic sensibility and her throat for the songs moreso. Leavel does much better. She doesn't have the same type of voice that Ebersole does, so the songs come across differently--more belty, perhaps. But she plays angry and upset much better, making it look real rather than constipated. She makes it such a part of her personality in the first act that her complete and utter transformation to complex joy in the second act astonishes even as it does something almost nothing else in the show does--move the plot along. "At a Quarter to Nine," the duet Brock shares with Sawyer, was the best moment in the show, and was nothing more than a throwaway under Ebersole's watch. Ebersole went through the motions, Leavel went through the emotions. What a difference an "e" makes.
Is there much of a point in discussing the rest of the show? What, really, does 42nd Street have to offer anyone? I mean, sure, you have one of the funniest and most unbelievable lines of last season (the season that spawned the endless low-comedy barbs of The Producers and the jaw-droppingly hilarious, "And Helen Keller sings this where" from A Class Act) when David Elder--David Elder--as Billy Lawlor refers to himself as "one of Broadway's better tenors." (It's supposed to be a joke but not that much of one!) You have Mary Testa and Jonathan Freeman hamming it up, a pretty capable ensemble, and some nice (if far from stunning) costumes and sets (Douglas W. Schmidt and Roger Kirk).
But there's just so little show here. The book, by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble was never a concern--try figuring out exactly what Pretty Lady, the show-within-the-show is about. I dare you. (Since I was so uninterested in what was happening onstage, I actually tried this during the performance--it's the most mind-bending theatrical exercise since trying to figure out what people see in Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida.) But, of course, that's okay--most 30s musicals didn't need plot.
The bigger problem, though, is that the book itself is so slight (as an homage to 30s musicals itself, perhaps?) that it's impossible to care about the characters. It never matters to me whether or not Peggy succeeds or fails, and Dorothy's romantic problems never involve me. While not necessarily a problem if the show doesn't want me to care, if the show does and I don't, something is wrong. And something is wrong. Fun is good. Mindless fun is good. But it can have heart, intelligence, and wit--look at The Will Rogers Follies. 42nd Street has none of the three.
It's better than Mamma Mia!, another recent show with proponents who tried to claim it doesn't matter how ineptly assembled a show is as long as you have a good time. But when the biggest thrill you get is seeing the show's lead dancer come out and wave a tiny U.S. flag around during the curtain call, the show is obviously not its job. The audience I was with seemed to buy into the show more than I did--they seemed to react fairly joyfully to the big group tap routines and all that, but I found it utterly without soul and meaning.
The mid-20th century saw the move away from utterly insignificant musical comedy. It is my most fervent hope that the success of shows like 42nd Street will not usher in that era again.
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