Catey Sullivan has been writing about Chicago theater for more than 25 years. She is a contributing writer at Crain's Chicago, Chicago Magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times. She's been published in Playbill, Pioneer Press, the Chicago Tribune and numerous other outlets. She has an MFA from the University of Illinois.
By Catey Sullivan
With the opening notes of “42nd Street,” it’s clear that the Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace production is not, as they say, your mother’s “42nd Street.” Traditionally, the Broadway musical comedy about putting on a Broadway musical comedy is a retro-delight. It’s set in the depths of the Great Depression, and Harry Warren’s score usually evokes the aesthetic of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and the Brothers Gershwin.
Director Michael Heitzman has reinvented the show with spectacular results. The story is the same: A small-town girl with Broadway dreams moves to the Big Apple, gets cast as a chorine and gets a one-in-a-million shot when she has to go on in the lead after the star falls ill. The show’s iconic lines (“You’re going out there a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!”) remain intact.
But Heitzman has amped up the score with squealing electric guitars, thumping bass beats and a thrashing percussion. Under music director Roberta Duchak and conductor Chris Sargent, the sound is now more “Jesus Christ Superstar” than Tin Pan Alley. While the switch is sometimes jarring, it adds an urgency and hyper-drive energy to classics including “We’re in the Money,” “42nd Street” and “Shuffle off to Buffalo.” The sonic assault is both unexpected and marvelous.
Always a show defined by lavish, full-bore tap numbers, this “42nd Street” now evokes the work of Savion Glover more than that of Fred and Ginger. Choreographer Jared Grimes has created dances to match the blisteringly revamped score and brought some startling innovations to the show’s wonderful-but-predictable tap extravaganzas.
It’s not just the sound that’s different. From the start, this “42nd Street” doesn’t look anything like previous incarnations of the show either. I’ve seen the show at least 10 times over the past 20 years it is always an overwhelmingly white affair. Heitzman’s cast breaks with tradition. The ensemble actually reflects New York City’s melting pot diversity.
Leading lady Dorothy Brock’s (Suzzanne Douglas) star-crossed affair with Pat Denning (Brandon Springman) is now an interracial love story, which adds layers upon layers of tension to the plot. Peggy Sawyer (Kimberly Immanuel) has strong Asian ethnic roots – When you think on the history of Asian Americans in the 1930s and ‘40s, Peggy’s drive to succeed is all the more poignant.
Heitzman’s staging is rife with surprises.
The pile-driving new sensibility makes itself known in the goose-bump inducing opening number, where a bustling Midtown streetscape explodes with a series of athletic dance maneuvers. (Cleverly, the number shows up again during the show-within-the-show that unfolds in the final third of the musical).
“We’re in the Money” is known far and wide for choreography (originally by Gower Champion) that has the ensemble tapping atop giant, sparkly coins. Here, choreographer Grimes takes the money theme a brilliant step further. A spoiler wouldn’t do, so suffice to say the number includes thousands of coins, flashing like fire beneath an ensemble’s worth of tap shoes.
When the scene shifts from a freewheeling party to backstage and back again, Heitzman has the cast moving like gazelles while re-defining the space with fringed lampshades. And when Dorothy launches into the usually languorous “You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me,” she deploys a scat section worthy of Ella Fitzgerald.
Heitzman gets excellent performances from his triple-threat cast.
As leading male “juvenile” (and somewhat obnoxious ladies’ man) Billy Lawler, Phillip Attmore brings an incandescent energy to the stage, combining a brawny athleticism and balletic grace that’s as explosive as thunder and light as air. Immanuel’s Peggy Sawyer is a showstopper with a smile to light up the sky. Douglas makes the usually vain-and-villainous Dorothy Brock someone you can easily empathize with. It doesn’t hurt that she’s got a voice that’s equally effective whether she’s going velvety smooth or full-bore jump-jive-and-wail.
As Julian Marsh, Gene Weygandt manages to navigate the dialogue’s hair-thin wire of cheesy melodrama and sincerity. Marsh has lines that could effortlessly come across as parody, and it takes a skilled performer to keep that from happening. Weygandt has just enough insouciance to make it work.
There’s also splendid supporting work from Erika Evans as Andy, who serves as Marsh’s dance captain and from Sierra Schnack as Anytime Annie. Schnack’s take on “Shuffle off to Buffalo” (well matched against Justin Brill) is a hoot. Finally, there’s the indomitable Donica Lynn as Maggie, Julian Marsh’s company manager. Anytime you have a chance to hear Lynn sing, you should take it. This is no exception.
Effervescent and wildly entertaining, this “42nd Street” is a place well worth visiting.