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Dancing sparkles in Musical Theatre West’s '42nd Street'

This review was published in the Long Beach Post's "Hi-lo" culture section on Feb. 18, 2024.

If you are a fan of Broadway musicals, look no further than Musical Theatre West’s “42nd Street” to get your fix. Continuing through Feb. 25, the Tony Award-winning “42nd Street” epitomizes the glitzy, glamorous costuming and high-energy tap dance one might expect from a Broadway show.

 

Based on the 1930s novel and film “42nd Street,” this 1980 stage musical relates the Depression Era story of talented young Peggy Sawyer (a vibrant Emma Nossal), fresh off the bus from Allentown, Pa., confident she can make it big in New York.

Peggy arrives late to audition for “Pretty Lady”—a new musical by famous producer Julian Marsh (Robert Mammana)—wearing a baby-blue long skirt and jacket amid dozens of shorts-wearing tap dancers.

 

But she catches the eye of leading man Billy Lawlor (Quintan Craig) as they sing “Young and Healthy” together (qualities that apparently count for a lot). And she bumps into producer Marsh on the way out, precipitating events that get her into the show’s chorus and may even allow her replace diva Dorothy Brock (April Nixon) as leading lady.

The story is almost farcical in the way Peggy dances her way into the biggest Broadway show to achieve her dream, however disillusioning it turns out to be. Characters are almost like caricatures in their one-dimensionality, and the plot unfolds episodically.

 

But it’s the song and dance that are the true stars of this production—and this is where Musical Theatre West’s production of “42nd Street” absolutely shines!

As directed by Cynthia Ferrer and choreographed by Cheryl Baxter, an ensemble of 20 dancers, some of them very talented students, hit every toe-and-heel tap-dance beat from the get-go. The high-energy opening ensemble number, a rehearsal for “Pretty Lady” called “Opening Act One,” is alone worth the price of admission.

 

The song-and-dance numbers that follow—including the well-known “We’re in the Money”—are similarly energetic, the cast glitzy in colorful, sparkly costumes (designed by Debbie Roberts) and bright lighting (Paul Black).

An interesting “Shadow Waltz” is the exception, an exercise in minimalism in which spotlights in front of the performers cast shadows against a background. Shadows grow smaller or larger depending on how the lighting moves, reminiscent of Indonesian shadow puppetry.

 

This sequence early in Act One, and other such potentially revealing moments in the musical, create opportunities for emotional depth that are never believably plumbed. Instead, the backstage plot of “42ndStreet” meta-theatrically comments on Broadway as a business, along a “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”

 

Also, because the setting is the 1930s—and perhaps because the stage musical was first produced at the start of the Reagan Era—sexism is rather rampant in “42nd Street.”

 

Billy seems to insinuate himself on Peggy when they first meet and she sweetly goes along with his physical forwardness. A much older Marsh eventually also falls for the youngster. And the dancers talk practically about having “sugar daddies” during a lunch out. 

Most explicitly, in the song “Dames” men sing about how ogling female performers is the only reason to see a Broadway show. Granted this is sung tongue-in-cheek (and the women dancers do indeed look good), but the messaging about dames as “temporary flames” for men who “don’t recall their names” seems anachronistic today.


Still, what you’re going for are the big Broadway numbers like this one, with a swinging orchestra (conducted by Wilkie Ferguson), excellent tap dancing and glamorous costuming. There is also much humor and also some drama involving Dorothy’s feelings between her true love and the man who pays her bills.

The leads all do justice to the songs, including the richly voiced Nixon as Dorothy. In terms of acting, Bree Murphy stands out as boisterous writer Maggie Jones, who notes how patrons will be paying a whopping $4.40 per seat for “Pretty Lady.” And Phillip Attmore is fluid and authentic as dance director Andy Lee.  

 

While the story and attitudes of “42nd Street” may feel more aligned to an older generation, this production’s dazzling staging, costuming, singing and dancing—with a message of staying true to yourself and your dream—still make it entertaining today.

 

Musical Theatre West’s “42nd Street” continues through Feb. 25 at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center at Cal State Long Beach, 6200 E. Atherton St., Long Beach, with shows Thursday, Feb. 15, at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 1:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. Tickets start at $20 and can be purchased through the box office at (562) 856-1999 or Musical.org. Run time is 2 hours and 25 minutes, including intermission.

 

 

 

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