The audience has only just finished applauding this Broadway classic’s “Greatest Hits” overture when the curtain rises to reveal the legs—and only the legs—of thirty  long-legged hoofers tap-dancing as if their Broadway careers depended on it (as they indeed do) … and the audience erupts in high-decibel cheers.

Anyone who knows musical theater can surely identify the show in question. It’s the Broadway megahit 42nd Street (3486 performances in its original run and another 1524 in its smash revival), now playing to sold-out houses at Long Beach’s Musical Theatre West in a production that sets the bar spectacularly high for any other company with the chutzpah to follow in their foot-taps.

To start with, MTW has engaged the inestimable services of director-choreographer Jon Engstrom, featured dancer and dance captain in the original 1980 Broadway production (directed and choreographed by musical theater legend Gower Champion), and therefore a man who knows 42nd Street better than the proverbial back of his hand.

Though Engstrom has probably lost count of the number of 42nd Streets he’s directed and choreographed, the freshness of this MTW revival suggests that he approaches each new production with the energy, enthusiasm, and creativity he must have given the show his very first time at bat.

 Though many musical theater aficionados would probably insist that 42nd Street is all about the tapping, Engstrom makes sure that despite the many (deliberate) clichés in Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble’s 1980 book, its leading characters come across as multidimensional as possible. Under Engstrom’s nuanced guidance, famed Broadway director Julian Marsh, diva extraordinaire Dorothy Brock, male ingénue Billy Lawlor, and fresh-off-the-bus musical theater hopeful Peggy Sawyer become real people, not the caricatures they can easily turn into, and when Julian tells Peggy that she has just 36 hours to learn 25 pages, 6 songs and 10 dance numbers and thereby “save the show,” Damon Kirsche says this straight from the heart, and though we chuckle, we believe him.

The radiant Tessa Grady plays Peggy, 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 Billy (Zach Hess) is immediately taken with Peggy, a (literal) run-in with Julian hardly puts the would-be star in the director’s good graces, nor is Dorothy (Tracy Lore) likely to be charmed by a singer-actress who can actually dance. (Double-threat Dorothy’s “dance talents” are restricted to graceful arm movements while authentic dancers do their complex choreography around her.)

 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!”

Giving Peggy this iconic bit of advice is premier L.A. leading man Kirsche, whose casting as Julian is a match made in musical theater heaven. Not only is Kirsche as dashing a lead as you could desire, he sings like a dream and plays Julian with such utter sincerity that you have no doubt at all that he means every showbiz cliché that leaves his mouth.

 The inimitable Lore makes for a couldn’t-be-better Dorothy, whose haughty self-assurance may inspire others to use the B word, but who somehow ends up endearing when it’s Lore playing the part. Add to that Lore’s superb comic timing and one big belt of a voice and you’ve got a dream Dorothy Brock.

To Grady’s growing list of credits can now be added Peggy Sawyer, about as fabulous a singing-dancing-acting showcase as any young triple-threat could wish for, and Grady is not only captivating in the role, she sings and taps so splendidly that the sky is clearly the limit for this very busy newcomer.

Supporting this trifecta is a awesome featured cast, beginning with new-to-L.A. Hess, who’s got just the right blend of looks and talent to make for one terrific Billy. Jamie Torcellini is such a sensational song-and-dance man that the roles of show-within-a-show choreographer Andy Lee and showman Bert Barry have been combined into one Bert, the better to let Torcellini not only sing “Shuffle Off To Buffalo” opposite Barbara Carleton Heart’s Maggie Jones and Caitlyn Calfas’s Ann Reilly, but lead 42nd Street’s show-stopping opening tap number as well. Heart plays the heck out of Maggie in the grand Eve Arden tradition, while Calfas brings an infectious joie de vivre to the irrepressible “Anytime Annie.” The latter’s sidekicks Phyllis Dale and Lorraine Flemming are engagingly performed by Evie Hutton and Lindsay Kristine Anderson, both of them delightful.

 Paul Ainsley scores many laughs as Dorothy’s “Sugar Daddy” Abner Dillon, the marvelous Christopher Guilmet makes Pat Denning as good a good guy as you could ask for, and Brad Fitzgerald scores in a trio of roles—Mac, Doc, and Thug. (Methinks the latter is Thug’s occupation, and not his name.)

And how about these young talents for the biggest and quite possibly the best dance ensemble ever to perform in an MTW production? Nick Adorno, Lauren Clark, Quintan Craig (Oscar), Emily Dauwalder, Jazz Elise, Deborah Fauerbach, Hector Guerrero, Camden Gonzales (Ethel), Natasha Harris, April Jo Henry, Blair Hollingsworth, Chloe Kiana, Nancy Lam, Kristen Lamoureux, Claudia Newland (Diane Lorimer), Katheryne Penny, Steven Rada, Thomas Roy, Avery Royal, Jennifer Simpson, Daniel Smith, Clay Stefanki, Katy Tabb, Matthew Thurmond, Christopher Valentine, Emily Verla, and Karl Warden deserve every single round of applause they get, and there are many.

 Every single musical number in this 42nd Street is a winner, beginning with the classic opener in which we first see only the tap-dancing legs of the chorus boys and girls. Add to that “Shadow Waltz,” “Getting Out Of Town,” “Dames,” “We’re In The Money,” “Lullaby Of Broadway,” and of course the title song, and you’ve got more show-stopping dance numbers than have probably ever been put in a single Broadway musical. (Of course it doesn’t hurt that they are being performed to a whole bunch of Harry Warren-Al Dubin Broadway standards.)

Reagle Music Theatre Of Greater Boston, Inc. has provided the relatively barebones set, which truth be told is precisely what suits this production best given the size of its cast. Making up for a simpler than usual set are some of the most gorgeous 1930s costumes as you’ll see anytime soon, provided by The Theatre Company, the female cast members’ gorgeous young faces topped by a whole bunch of spiffy ‘30s wigs designed Matthew Reeves Oliver. Lighting designer Jean-Yves Tessier once again makes everything glitter and sparkle, with Julie Ferrin’s crystal-clear sound design insuring that both singers and orchestra sound spectacular. Speaking of which, musical director Michael Borth not only elicits topnotch vocals but conducts an orchestra that easily matches the best of what you’ll hear on Broadway.

Kevin Clowes, David Cruise, and Brian Sholty are technical directors, Stanley D. Cohen is stage manager, and Mary Ritenhour is assistant stage manager and production manager.

42nd Street marks the opening production of Musical Theatre West’s 60th Anniversary season, and an auspicious season opener it is. With a proven crowd-pleaser like this Hollywood/Broadway classic and a cast as wow-worthy as they come, audiences are guaranteed a tip-top, no make that a tap-top time at Long Beach’s Carpenter Center from now through November 11.

Musical Theatre West, Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach

–Steven Stanley
October 27, 2012
Photos: Alysa Brennan

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