Coming out of the current production of 42nd Street at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, I turned to my wife and asked: was that really as . . . guileless as it’s presenting itself to be? Because if it is, I kind of think that’s . . . good.
I’ve never seen the show before, and it wasn’t particularly on my bucket list, but when Stratford does a musical they generally go all out – and sometimes (as with last year’s Jesus Christ Superstar, or 2009′s West Side Story) go beyond spectacle to achieve the sublime. I wasn’t expecting that from 42nd Street, but I was open to discovering something I wouldn’t have expected.
I knew the show was a pastiche of period numbers, with a very thin plot – Peggy Sawyer, a young ingenue with moxie and heart gets her chance at the big time when she has to take over the lead from the aging and bitter star. What I didn’t know was that this story is presented essentially without irony, as a flat-out wish-fulfillment fantasy. The ingenue doesn’t just get the part, she’s begged to take it by the entire rest of the chorus line (they aren’t jealous?) and by the supposedly tough-as-nails director (he’s going to take his valuable time to sell this rookie on saving his show, when there’s a line of out-of-work dancers around the block?), and she gets the blessing of the bitter older star (who realizes she actually wants to retire and marry her unappealing gigolo boyfriend). It’s one of the textbook “don’ts” from the writing books: don’t make it too easy on your protagonist.
But it’s precisely this quality that makes the show seem so innocently charming. It’s as if the creators said: nobody is going to go to this show for a story. They’re going to participate in a dream. So let’s give ‘em the dream, and not sneer at them for dreaming it.
Most of the characters stay at the level of cardboard archetype, though the whole cast does a fabulous job playing those archetypes – Kyle Blair as the young tenor, Billy Lawlor; Kyle Golemba as the director’s hard-working and hard-driving factotum, Andy Lee; Gabrielle Jones and Geoffrey Tyler as the “character parts,” the veteran songwriting team of Maggie Jones and Bert Barry; and the girls of the line, led by Naomi Costain and Rachel Crowther. Two roles, though, rise above this level: Julian Marsh, the director, and Dorothy Brock, the aging star.
Marsh is played by Sean Arbuckle, and as in his turn as the Pirate King I felt like he didn’t quite have the air of command required. But what he did bring was a real humanity to the role; when he tells Peggy she’s a really remarkable girl, you believe that she’s awakened in him some of the faith that once brought him to this crazy business. His was the one performance that made this a story about a dream, rather than a dream itself. Cynthia Dale, by contrast, is ideally cast as Brock. I don’t mean that exactly as a compliment. I’ve never been fond of Dale’s work, which I find self-regarding; I saw too many Stratford musicals suffer from her lack of chemistry with her leading men, and her inability to inhabit a role rather than doing a star turn. But she does have a voice, and a presence, and those very qualities that I dislike in here generally served her extremely well here, because they are aspects of Brock’s personality.
And then there’s Peggy Sawyer, It helps, in a way, that the ingenue in this production, Jennifer Rider-Shaw, is, well, not an obvious ingenue. She’s got buck teeth, is a bit thick in the waist, and while she’s very sweet and is both an excellent dancer and hits her marks with her scripted mistakes, when she is still learning her place in the line, she doesn’t have obvious star quality. This hurts if we’re supposed to take the story seriously – but it helps if we’re supposed to treat this as a fantasy. It could happen to anyone, the show seems to be saying, if the stars line up right. (Or if you trip the star so she breaks her ankle – and by the way, what did happen during the first performance in Philly? Did Peggy step out of line? Why did Dorothy Brock fall? I admit, it all happened so fast that I didn’t see – but it’s pretty significant to the plot.)
There are moments of real darkness in the show, particularly in the show-within-a-show. The number, “We’re In the Money” recalls the “Yes, Yes” number from the movie version of “Pennies From Heaven,” which gives it a quality of forced gaiety, and the title number is staged as a cross between the Cyd Charisse nightclub scene in “Singin’ In the Rain” and the nightmare ballet from Oklahoma. But the message of the outer show is that the innocent ingenue can banish these demons. She even charms the overbearing producer, Abner Dillon (Steve Ross trying on yet another accent), sugar-daddy of the star and the symbol of the corruption of artistic values. The fantasy, in other words, isn’t that Broadway is something other than it is – a brutally unsentimental business – but that the fetid waters in the gutters of Times Square would simply part for the tapping feet of someone as innocently in love with the dream as Peggy Sawyer is.