It’s always a pleasure to see a Downey Civic Light Opera production. I don’t know of another L.A. area CLO with Downey’s hometown feel. Downey residents have come to know DCLO’s resident cast of musical theater stars including Bill Lewis, Charlotte Carpenter, Ed Krieger, Ann Peck McBride, and Glenn Edward, all of whom have done show after show under the direction of Marsha Moode, DCLO’s Executive Producer extraordinaire.  Downey CLO concludes its 2008-2009 season with the ever popular 42nd Street, which just happens to star all of the above regulars under Moode’s as always inventive direction.

Who doesn’t know the story of 42nd Street and its heroine Peggy Sawyer (Theresa Ann Swain), who’s arrived in Manhattan fresh off the bus from Allentown, PA with nothing but a suitcase full of dreams and a whole bunch of talent?  Though resident male ingénue Billy Lawlor (Charlie Nash) is immediately taken with Peggy, a (literal) run-in with impresario Julian Marsh (Lewis) hardly puts the would-be star in the director’s good graces, nor is Broadway legend Dorothy Brock (Carpenter) likely to be charmed by a singer-actress who can actually dance. (Double-threat Dorothy’s “dance talents” are slight to say the least.)

As anyone who’s seen the 1933 Warner Brothers movie musical classic on which the Broadway musical is based knows, a bit of bad luck for Dorothy provides Peggy with the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become an overnight Broadway star—if only she can master the role in a non-stop day and a half.  No one need doubt the outcome of this prodigious endeavor (this being musical comedy after all), and many if not most in the audience will be able to mouth along with Julian the classic words, “You’re going out there a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!” (Coincidentally [or not so], Downey’s last production, Dames At Sea, spoofed the very same plot.)

Lead performances are this 42nd Street’s strongest suit, and in fact it’s hard to imagine a better Julian Marsh than Lewis, dashing, imperious, and charismatic, who performs some of the show’s most famous Harry Warren-Al Dubin songs (“Lullaby Of Broadway,” “42nd Street”) in his crystal clear tenor. Lewis’s real life leading lady Carpenter plays deliciously against (girl-next-door) type as diva Dorothy, lending her exquisite pipes to “Shadow Waltz,” “You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me,” “I Know Now,” and “Quarter To Nine.” Swain, who’s twice played the brassy Anytime Annie, graduates here to chorine-turned-overnight-Broadway-star Peggy, showing off some fabulous tap-dancing feet, an excellent singing voice, and buckets of charm.

Director Moode has tweaked Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble’s book just a tad to up the importance of fictional song-writing duo Maggie Jones and Bert Berry (McBride and George Champion), giving them added hints of real-life team Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s renowned comic palaver.  McBride is a brassy hoot as Maggie, Champion providing a perfect foil for wise-cracking Miss Jones. They duet the show-stopping “Getting Out Of Town,” and in another number, Champion may just earn a record for holding the longest high note ever.

Nash has some good moments as a very young Billy, and will hopefully gain confidence as the run continues. Edward does first-rate work as Dorothy’s true love Pat Denning and Krieger is very funny as her Sugar Daddy Abner Dillon.  Standouts in other supporting roles are Dance Captain Nicole Manly (as chorus girl “Anytime Annie” Reilly) and Patrick Robert Kelly (as choreographer Andy Lee). Manly combines brassy-&-cute with a delightfully distinctive voice (both singing and speaking) and Kelly shows off quite an impressive pair of tap-dancing feet.

Other speaking roles are well handled by Andrea Dodson (Phyliss Dale), Rusty Vance (Mac), Heather Biede (Lorraine Fleming), William Crisp (Doctor), and Heather Blades (Iris), as well as by Chris Ring (Charles Lane), Blaire Hollingsworth (Diane Lorimer), Nicole Ligerman (Edna Bradley), and Jeffrey D. Collier (Joe).

The most successful Downey CLO shows are those which features a chorus made up of “real people” like the townsfolk of Oklahoma! or the residents of Anatevka in Fiddler On The Roof.  42nd Street presents a greater challenge, as the singing-dancing ensemble are playing Broadway dancers.  The mostly very young 42nd Street ensemble* doesn’t manage to pull this off, but they do have some exciting moments, particularly the justly famous opening number, which features just their tap dancing legs and feet before the curtain rises to reveal them head to toe.

Choreographer Gitana Van Buskirk has created some great tap dance steps that recall Gower Champion’s Broadway originals, and a hilarious “Shadow Waltz.” Musical director Eddy Clement conducts the fine Downy CLO orchestra. Kim Killingsworth’s lighting is first-rate, the “Shadow Waltz” shadows a lighting highlight. There were opening night glitches in Ralph Amendola’s sound design with many mikes going on a second or two after characters began speaking.  Hopefully timing will be sharpened.  Sets are rather basic, with lots of black curtains and painted scrims, but the distinctive Downey Theatre side stages are used to perfection, nicely designed by Mark W. Keller. Costumes (coordinated by Kelly Tracey) and wigs (designed by Sonia Silva) are mostly quite good.

42nd Street is a sure bet to entertain Downey CLO audiences, with next season’s My Fair Lady, Rodgers and Hart A Celebration, and Carousel a trio of Broadway classics to look forward to.

*Angel Castellanos, Peter Crisafulli, Sean Cruz, Gretchen Dawson, Micaela De Lauro, Nino Goce, Kurt Jarrard, Lindsey Kelly, Jay Lee, Kevin Ling, Daniel MacInnis, Libby MacKinzie, Libby Snyder, Samantha Stumman, Lindsay Styler, Mark Velarde, and Frances Wulke

Downey Theatre, 8435 E. Firestone Blvd. , Downey.

–Steven Stanley
May 29, 2009

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