Drury Lane's well-cast '42nd Street' stumbles amid confusing style choices
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"42nd Street" -- ★ ★ ½
"Wow, would you look at that?"
That's what audiences should be thinking while watching the 1980 Broadway musical smash "42nd Street." This quintessential backstage tale of a naive chorus girl who becomes an overnight star is little more than an excuse to reinterpret spectacular Busby Berkeley dance sequences in Depression-era flicks such as "Golddiggers of 1933," "Dames" and, of course, "42nd Street."
Yet the question that often comes to mind with Drury Lane Theatre's well-cast but flawed revival is: "What were they thinking?" Park Ridge native Michael Heitzman makes a muddled directorial debut with a production of questionable sonic stylings, rearranged scenes and stripped-back scenery.
In a program note, Heitzman says his aim was to create "A '42nd Street' that would remain faithful to the beautiful melodies by Harry Warren, and lyrics by Al Dubin and Johnny Mercer, but would also allow us to hear these classic songs anew, with a fresh, bold contemporary sound."
Sorry, but many of Everett Bradley's new musical arrangements do not aurally align to the show's 1933 setting. Bradley's orchestrations emphasize synthesizers and electric guitar, so some big dance sequences sound like they should be disco underscoring for 1970s TV car chase sequences on "CHiPs" or "Starsky and Hutch."
What truly redeems Drury Lane's "42nd Street" are the fine performers. Led by Kimberly Immanuel as the cute-as-a-button chorine Peggy Sawyer and Gene Weygandt as the brusque director Julian Marsh, the cast rises above the sketchy characterizations of book writers Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble to give equal weight to both the musical's wisecracking humor and the high-stakes drama.
As haughty diva Dorothy Brock, Suzzanne Douglas is a marvel of grace and alluring jazz vocal stylings that bring to mind the late, great Lena Horne. Douglas' heart-aching singing in numbers such as the "Shadow Waltz" and "You're Getting to be a Habit With Me" convey a woman secretly in emotional turmoil as she juggles her wealthy sugar daddy, Abner Dillon (a suitably gruff Cedric Young), and her true love, the out-of-work actor Pat Denning (a dashing Brandon Springman).
Another pure delight is Donica Lynn as the boisterous songwriter Maggie Jones. Lynn's oversize personality and unexpected comic line readings receive great support from Justin Brill as her songwriting cohort Bert Barry.
The stars get welcome glamour from Emilio Sosa's period costumes, but the staging pales in comparison. Stunning art deco sets, a staple of most "42nd Street" productions, have been dumped in favor of designer Collette Pollard's scaffold-framed sets of brick walls and steel beams, which make it look like scenic shop workers left for lunch and never came back.
Jared Grimes' athletic choreography is an expected crowd pleaser, particularly with all the amazing tricky tap steps showcased by Phillip Attmore as show-within-a-show star Billy Lawlor. But the dances can also jolt audiences out of the action.
Grimes' slinky choreography for the women in "Dames" feels too modern, while his expansion of the rearranged de facto Act I closer "We're in the Money" is a dramatic puzzlement. After one character suffers a frightening injury and another is unfairly fired, the ensemble essentially shrugs as if nothing happened, making the fancy footwork look callous. (You may also worry that audiences in the front rows should be issued safety goggles to dodge the spilled loose change that flies off the stage via a tap-dancing gimmick that doesn't fully pan out.)
I'm all for directors making bold choices to re-imagine classic theater works. But when it comes to "42nd Street," Heitzman's tinkering is more miss than hit.
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Location: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, (630) 530-0111 or drurylanetheatre.com
Showtimes: 1:30 p.m. Wednesday; 1:30 and 8 p.m. Thursday (2:30 p.m. Nov. 23); 8 p.m. Friday; 5 and 8:30 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday (no shows Dec. 24; 5 and 8:30 p.m. Dec. 31); through Jan. 7
Tickets: $47-$62 (dinner and show packages available)
Running time: About 2 hours 20 minutes, with intermission
Parking: Valet service or free adjacent parking garage
Rating: Some backstage sexual innuendo, but largely for general audiences