42nd Street is a classic Broadway musical -- relying heavily on a cast comprised of triple threats, this tap extravaganza is a delight for the ears as much as it is a spectacle for the eyes. I have never seen the original 42nd Street, so there are some particular differences I am sure I am missing. What is clear is that the orchestrations feel fresh and the casting is diverse. For a more in-depth look at the creative process behind this version, I would highly recommend Playlist Presents, which created a behind-the-scenes podcast about this production.
People often joke that movies about making movies win Oscars. By the same token, there is something quintessentially theatrical about a musical that is about making a musical. 42nd Street is a Broadway dream kind of musical -- Peggy Sawyer (Kimberly Immanuel) from Allentown, PA comes to New York to make it big. She falls in quickly with the typical archetypes of Broadway: Julian Marsh (Jarrod Emick), a big time producer; Maggie Jones (Jamecia Bennett) and Bert Berry (Tyler Michaels King), co-writers and producers of Pretty Lady; Dorothy Brock (Tamara Tunie), an aging star whose talents reside in singing, not dancing; Abner Dillon (T. Mychael Rambo), Brock’s patron and financial backer of the musical; Billy Lawler (Phillip Attmore), a charming dancer who tries to sweep Peggy off her feet, and all of the named and unnamed chorus and ensemble members. It is clear right away that Peggy is something special, and after Dorothy Brock is injured, fellow chorus girl Diane (Shari Williams) tell Julian Marsh that Peggy is the only replacement he will need. Predictable and charming, Peggy’s dreams come true when she wows everyone with her talent.
Unlike so many stories that might choose to highlight the competitive nature of dance (think Black Swan), this company of dancers, actors, and singers come together to create something wonderful -- the fictitious Pretty Lady. This is clear when the chorus touts Peggy as the clear choice to replace Brock (as opposed to themselves…) and when Brock and Peggy don’t descend into All About Eve paranoia. There are many other points in the show that could have caused more commotion but then just don’t: Peggy eventually rejects Billy and he just gets over it like an actually nice guy; Peggy and Julian start a romance that he doesn’t pressure her about at all (and in fact she instigates); the chorus girls teach Peggy the steps and help her learn the ropes, without incident. The only really troubling relationship is Brock’s with Abner Dillon; the broad way that T. Mychael Rambo plays Dillon however, leaves the audience in no doubt that his expectations are repugnant. 42nd Street feels more like sports or heist flick -- the team is carefully assembled to do the best job with their roles. Instead of completing against each other, they work together. There isn’t a conflict in this play, instead there is a challenge: everyone needs to push themselves to make the final product an exhilarating spectacle. The fact that this show pretty much stridently resists conflict can make it a touch dull in places, but the dullness creates space, like a jukebox musical, for number upon number upon number of amazing tap numbers and songs.
While all of the numbers are pretty fantastic, it would be reproachable to not call out by name “We’re in the Money.” The dancers tap dancing on real coins at breakneck speed with incredible precision is one of the most spectacular, and I expect technically challenging, things I have ever seen. Tamara Tunie’s numbers, especially “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me,” fill the cavernous Ordway with silky, rich notes that underscore her character’s arc. Jamecia Bennett’s incredibly luscious voice, injected with well-timed humor, makes all of her numbers particularly enjoyable. Kimberly Immanuel and Phillip Attmore steal the show with their sensational tapping, singing, and downright infectious smiles.
If you are, or can be, impressed by dancing, you need to go see this show! This incredibly well-cast version of 42nd Street runs at the Ordway until August 11.