Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, March 2008
“Hear the beat of dancing feet...”
- Al Dubin
The joint is literally jumping in Cohoes as Tralen Doler filled has once again filled the Music Hall with a big, exuberant dance extravaganza, this time a tap-happy staging of 42nd Street. I could literally feel the floor shake as the big finale cranked into high gear. This isn’t the largest cast ever to perform “42nd Street” but it is just the right size for Cohoes, and Doler manages to cram every nook and cranny with movement and color.
Frankly, I got happy the minute the Cohoes Music Hall orchestra, under the direction of Michael McAssey, launched into the overture. Everything in this production sounds and looks just great, except for one pair of eyebrows, which I will get to later.
This 1980 Broadway version of the iconic 1933 film about the chorus girl who goes out there a youngster and comes back a star holds no surprises plotwise. In fact true film buffs can probably recite half of the lines along with the cast. 42nd Street is the second longest running American musical in Broadway history, after A Chorus Line. It took the Tony for Best Musical, and – for better or worse – launched the ongoing craze for adapting screen hits to the stage, and for augmenting the original film scores with all the best songs in the composer and or lyricist’s oeuvre.
For 42nd Street adaptors Mike Stewart and Mark Bramble scuttled one of the five songs in the film and added nine more hits from the Harry Warren /Al Dubin canon. Since the majority of the songs weren’t even written for this show, they obviously work as spectacle rather than advancing the plot in any way. Still, they are wonderful – I Only Have Eyes For You, We’re in the Money, Lullaby of Broadway, Shuffle Off to Buffalo, and, of course, the title song. What’s not to like?
There are lots of familiar faces on the Cohoes stage in this production, starting with leading lady Jessica Costa, who Jim Charles and Tony Rivera of C-R productions literally plucked out of the chorus line a few years back and have elevated to star status. Here she gets to play out her own story as the spunky and talented Peggy Sawyer. It’s a dynamite performance in the mold of her first Cohoes starring role under Doler’s direction in Thoroughly Modern Millie last season, a production that Doler recreated in last summer at the Mac-Haydn with Karla Shook* in the lead, and here Costa couldn’t look and sound more like Shook if she tried. Heck, maybe she is trying. There are many worse things than emulating the capitol region’s musical theatre darling on your way to (possibly) usurping her crown. Anyone up for a production of Applause?
Jerry Christakos, Tim Luoma, Peter Stoffan, Kurtis Overby, and Shawn R. Morgan have stayed on at Cohoes after appearing in last month’s boffo revival of in La Cage Aux Folles and I’m glad they did. Christakos makes Julian Marsh hilariously larger than life. You can just see the quotation marks around his big speeches, and his rendition of Lullaby of Broadway is powerful. As the smarmy tenor, Billy Lawlor, Stoffan got to show off more of his singing skills and was a pleasure.
Luoma is playing it straight here as Bert Barry, the composer half of the creative team for Pretty Lady, the fictional show-within-a-show that makes Peggy Sawyer a star. I got a big kick out of him paired with Jennifer Elise Davis in Shuffle Off to Buffalo and his interaction with Bonnie Williams as Barry’s lyricist partner Maggie Jones. Luoma is a slight man while both Davis and Williams are big stage presences, although in completely different ways, and he makes the chemistry work with both of them.
Where has Williams been hiding and why haven’t I seen her before? She has been performing around the Capitol Region for years! Often the casting of character ladies in big musicals seems to be a bit of an after thought, but Williams commands the stage from the minute she starts belting out Young and Healthy early in the first act. Jerielle Morwitz, more notable for her leading roles in Theater Barn musicals than for her previous Cohoes appearance in The Sound of Music, is cast as Dorothy Brock, the over-the-hill star whose broken ankle gives Peggy her big break. Problem is that Morwitz isn’t over-the-hill – she is a beautiful young woman and a quirky performer better suited to edgier roles like Penelope Pennywise in in Urinetown and Vienna in Johnny Guitar. When she lets go on a song, like she does on I Only Have Eyes for You, there is no doubt that this is a performer in her prime.
Doler attempts to cleverly conceal Davis and Overby in the chorus, although they both have small speaking parts as well – Davis as brassy chorine “Anytime” Annie and Overby as dance captain Andy Lee – but he might as well try to hide a lit candle under a bushel basket. The basket is gonna catch fire folks, and in doing so make itself ten times more spectacle than one dinky candle could ever be. These “kids” have star power – Davis has already starred as Velma in Chicago at Cohoes this past fall – and even though they try their best to blend in, they cannot help but stand out.
I mentioned that this is not the largest cast ever to perform 42nd Street. David Merrick’s opening night cast numbered 54, and the earth must have truly shaken when they all got tapping at once! But Doler gets plenty of thunder out of his dancing corps, numbering between seven and fifteen.
Have you ever noticed that the title song is written in a minor key? When I saw and listened to the show at Cohoes, I heard an echo of some grittier past, of a story that was more than just a fairy tale, and I wanted to find it.
42nd Street started its life as a novel by Bradford Ropes (1905-1966), who worked as a Broadway dancer, a novelist and screenwriter, and a Hollywood bit player. Ropes collaborated on the screenplay for the famous 1933 Warner Brothers film, but only the barest skeleton of the story he told about naughty, bawdy, gaudy, sporty 42nd Street made the jump from page to screen. Even Julian Marsh’s physical illness, evident in the film vanishes here. Everyone is young and healthy and law-abiding, and there are no hard feelings between Dorothy and Peggy at the final curtain. For a fascinating peek at the less than wholesome roots of this oh-so-happy tale, I refer you to the second paragraph of this interesting piece by Frank Miller on the Turner Classic Movies Web site about Stage Mother, a later film based on a Bradford Ropes novel. It’s a real eye-opener!
Now, about those eyebrows. This is the second time in the past year that the alarming misplacement of a performer’s eyebrows has completely distracted me. This first was the inexplicable disappearance of Jonathan Epstein’s when he played McMurphy in ...Cuckoo’s Nest last summer, and now Jerielle Morwitz’s seem to be migrating north toward her hairline about as fast as the polar icecaps are receding. Since they were obviously drawn on, I suggest someone reassess the situation and either let her use her own natural eyebrows, or draw the fake ones in a slightly more believable position.
Pamela Keenan is credited with the costume design, and, with the exception of a particularly ill-fitting pair of tap pants on Costa in the “rehearse ‘til you drop” scenes, everything looks great. But many of the pieces are rented from the Mac-Haydn, which has staged this show twice in the ten years I have been reviewing. I may be the only person in the audience who sees enough theatre to make these dresses, tap pants and giant dimes seem like old friends, but if there are any others out there, I am sure they had the same sense of déjà vu that I did.
Karla Hemmelgarn is the new lighting designer at Cohoes, and she is off to an auspicious start. The lighting is well-timed and dramatic, particularly in the “Shadow Waltz” where the company dances with their own, and other performers’, shadows in creative ways.
The weather outside is still pretty frightful, but there’s a sunny side to every situation inside the Cohoes Music Hall. 42nd Street is a wonderful, family-friendly entertainment for this dreary time of year.
42nd Street, presented by C-R Productions, runs through March 30 at the Cohoes Music Hall, 58 Remsen Street in Cohoes. Performances are scheduled for Thursdays at 8 p.m.,Friday and Saturday Evenings at 8 p.m., Sunday Matinees at 3 p.m., and one Saturday Matinee at 3 p.m. on the last Saturday of each production. The show runs two hours and thirty-five minutes with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-237-5858 for tickets and information.
*Ironically, it is Karla’s sister, Kelly L. Shook, who has played Peggy Sawyer in “42nd Street” at the Mac-Haydn and at other regional theatres around the country.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008