Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2005
If you are a tap dance junkie looking for your next fix now that Savion Glover has departed from Jacob’s Pillow, you will want to book tickets NOW for 42nd Street at the Mac-Haydn. I went to the theatre with high hopes and fond memories of the Mac’s 1999 production of this show, and I was certainly not disappointed. I was also not the only one with happy memories of the production six years ago, since 42nd Street was brought back by popular demand, being the most requested show on last year’s audience survey.
In the intervening years Mac-Haydn regular Kelly L. Shook*, a mere smiling chorine in 1999, has grown up considerably, and, in 2002-2003, performed the role of Anytime Annie in a Moscow production of 42nd Street. For this production she has choreographed all the splendid dance numbers and plays the leading role of Peggy Sawyer, the girl who goes out there and unknown and comes back a star.
All of this effort (Kelly Shook also choreographed the last Mac-Haydn offering Carousel) has taken a physical toll on the poor girl, and she was obviously ill towards the end of the performance I saw. An anachronistic blue plastic cup of water or some other soothing liquid was gracefully conveyed to her on stage at one point, but she continued to cough, poor thing. While I am sure Jennifer Cameron is an able understudy, and were she to go on it would be a real 42nd Street style story, I hope that Kelly Shook is able to rest and recuperate in between performances. It would be a great pity to work so very hard and then not get to enjoy your moment in the limelight.
While it is set in the 1930’s and feels like a thoroughly old-fashioned musical 42nd Street had its Broadway debut in 1980 when the legendary David Merrick shrewedly brought the 1933 Dick Powell film with its lively score by Harry Warren and Al Dubin to the stage. It had a wildly successful Broadway revival in 2001 which only just closed in January of this year. The show took the Tony for Best New Musical in 1981 and Best Revival of a Musical in 2001. The plot is your boiler plate “star is born” scenario – young innocent from Allentown, PA, goes out an unknown and comes back a star. Hokey as it is, nobody, it seems, doesn’t like 42nd Street.
Actually, while I just lap up all the stuff about the eager, plucky, and talented young dancers tapping their toes off to make Pretty Lady (the show within a show that Julian Marsh and company are staging) a success, and I get a big kick out of the washed-up diva routines, I have never bought into the central premise of the show. I never find Peggy Sawyer’s transformation from nobody to somebody particularly compelling or believable. This is no slur on Kelly Shook, whose flying feet are certainly worthy of a shot at stardom. It is sort of the reverse of the problem Cassie faces in A Chorus Line when she tries to fit back in with the “kids” in the line after years as a star. What makes an outstanding chorus dancer and what makes an outstanding solo act are two different things. The actress/dancer who plays Peggy Sawyer has to be able to blend seamlessly into the ensemble numbers and being the sort of dancer with that ability makes it hard for her to stand out from the crowd when her moment comes.
But ultimately I find 42nd Street to be a show about the boys and girls in the chorus line. The big moments in this production are when a dozen or so terrific tappers get cranked up and fly about that tiny stage at the Mac-Haydn. While I am sure this show is splendid in a big house with a chorus of 50+ dancers, I find the intimacy of the Mac-Haydn production thrilling. You can, literally from many seats, reach out and touch the dancers (but please don’t), and the skill they display is not only the technical precision of their footwork, but their ability to do it all in such a small space without killing themselves or the audience. Kelly Shook, and her sister Karla who is the Assistant Choreographer, have more than two decades of experience working at the Mac-Haydn and the exciting dance numbers they have created make the best of the quirky space in the theatre.
The Shook sisters (Karla assays the role of Anytime Annie) are the stars of this production in every sense of the word. They are front and center in almost every scene and dance number and their youth, talent and enthusiasm is exhilarating. But Kathy Halenda is a force to be reckoned with as Dorothy Brock, the diva who can’t really cut it anymore. While it is easy to see that Peggy Sawyer can dance rings around Dorothy Brock, buying the powerful and talented Halenda as washed-up is a bit of a stretch. Can’t that Julian Marsh (Grant Golson) fellow and his cracker-jack team of writers Maggie Jones (Amanda Taraska) and Bert Barry (John Saunders) find parts for both of them in Pretty Lady? But of course that is not how the story goes. Peggy (by accident, of course) bumps into Dorothy during a dance rehearsal and Dorothy breaks her ankle and it looks like the show will have to close until Annie has this great idea that just might work…
Golson sings nicely but is too young and lacks authority as Julian Marsh, but Taraska is full of vinegar as the confident and sassy Maggie. It is good to see Saunders back on the stage after several stints as a director. Unfortunately he doesn’t get very much to do here until the very end of the second act when he, Taraska, Karla Shook, and the lovely ladies of the chorus team up for a naughty and gaudy rendition of Shuffle Off to Buffalo.
Why, oh why, was Jason Paul cast as the tenor star Billy Lawlor when he can’t hit the high notes? Not even in falsetto. I am a big fan of a good falsetto, but he hasn’t got one. It was great to see Gavin Waters back at the Mac. He is a very talented dancer and here, in the role of dance captain Andy Lee, that is pretty much all he gets to do. I hope to see him in a role that requires a little more personality soon. I sang Karla Shook’s praises in full in my review of Carousel and you can rest assured that she is as entertaining as ever here in one of her more familiar bimbo-with-a-heart-of-gold roles.
A great deal of money and effort was put into this show six years ago to excellent effect, and I personally greeted the familiar set pieces by Terry Collins and handsome costumes by Jimm Halliday like old friends. If you’ve made the investment and it’s paid off, why not cash in on it again? The Mac-Haydn runs a very professional costume shop and everything looks splendid. The number of rapid costume changes is amazing.
I see I have gotten this far and failed to mention that Joseph Patton directed this excellent entertainment. In a dancing extravaganza like 42nd Street it is easy to forget the important role the director plays in helping the performers establish and refine their characters and keep the constantly interrupted storyline in the audience’s mind.
42nd Street is the perfect show with which to introduce school-aged children to the joys of musical theatre. In fact you might want to be careful or you will exit the theatre with a gaggle of star-struck youngsters in tow. As Julian Marsh says, “musical comedy” are two of the most beautiful words in the English language!
42nd Street runs through July 17 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Route 203 just north of the center of Chatham, NY. The show runs two hours and thirty-five minutes with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-9292.
* Here I have the complex task of writing a review that contains comments about both Kelly and Karla Shook. Journalistic etiquette requires that, once a person has been identified by first and last name, he or she is then referred to by just their last name for the remainder of the article. That won’t work here. If two people have the same last name, they are, once identified, referred to by their first initial and their last name. The Shooks share a first initial. So for purposes of clarity I will at all times refer to the Shook sisters by both their first and last names. It will read awkwardly, but at least you’ll know who I’m talking about!
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005