by Lisa Jarisch
Is there a better way to celebrate the first full day of summer than an evening spent at a theater putting on a show about putting on a show? Surely not, and in classic Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney “ Here’s a barn. Let’s put on a show!” fashion—complete with barn, of course!..the Mac-Haydn Theatre offers up 42nd Street as its 2023 opener, and it is everything a summer musical should be.
With its 1930’s settting taking the audience deep in the heart of the Depression, it almost comes as a shock to realize this show has “only” been around since its 1980 Broadway debut. Scenic Designer Erin Kiernan has admirably captured the essence of the era with her set, beginning as the audience files in to the dim glow of a ghost light on an empty stage, with a now-probably collectible old- fashioned pay phone attached to a brick wall dripping with rope stage rigging. The former Stage Manager in me was hard pressed not to make use of the omnipresent push broom to give the stage floor a quick sweep, but, in any case, the 1930’s are on full display throughout the production. With every set and scene change, you can almost hear the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd. Wait. Wrong show. But Kiernan’s sets are perfect, from the stages of assorted theatres to the dressing room of the Leading Lady, railway stations, and restaurants, where the order is for 5 cups of hot water…and 1 tea bag. It should also be noted with approval, and a bit of awe, that scene and set changes are performed seamlessly throughout the production, often in full lighting, without interrupting the flow of the show. Such is a credit to both the director and the scenic designer, but most especially to the cast for carrying out “stage crew duties” without breaking character, or creating a distraction from the continuing stage action.
Essentially this is a show long on song and dance and short on plot, which, frankly, makes it the perfect choice for a season opener, as it lets the audience simply sit back and enjoy the performances.
You really can’t go wrong with the classic plot of “Small town star truck chorus girl gets her big break because of the star’s actual big break—of an ankle–, makes good but always remembers and returns to her humble chorine roots.” Sometimes it’s lovely to be presented with a show that requires nothing more than your undivided attention to the talent on display, and that is exactly what Director John Saunders offers the audience, wrapped up in a glorious, joyous, pitch-perfect, choreographically-amazing package.
Perennial M-H favorite Gabe Belyeu is a quintessential Julian Marsh, admirably channeling his inner Jerry Orbach, who, as the originator of the role of the demanding, dashing, and ultimately smitten director , surely would approve of Belyeu’s performance. Belyeu is building quite the repertoire of memorable roles at the Mac, a true testimony to his versatility and talent. Hopefully he will be continuing to grace the boards of the Mac stage not only for much of this season, but for many a season to come. It is always a joy to see his name on a cast list, and know that he will offer up a full-throated, fully-developed, totally committed performance every time he takes to the stage. His Julian Marsh is nothing less than all of that, and his delivery of the iconic signature tune “Lullaby of Broadway” was the show-stopping moment it is meant to be.
In her Mac-Haydn debut, Rachel Revellese bursts onto the stage like the rising star Peggy Sawyer dreams of becoming. Her voice is as true and strong as her feet are fleet. She more than holds her own with every vocal number, but it is her flying feet in the dance numbers that steal the show. The girl can tap! No surprise there, as her program bio indicates numerous awards, clearly well-deserved, for her tap-dancing talents.While she owns the role of Peggy Sawyer, it was impossible not to also imagine her as Kathy Selden in Singin’ in the Rain, another “ ‘Upstart’ Ingenue saves the day” role she would surely embrace and put her own talented stamp on. Hoping to see more of her as the summer progresses; she could be the break-out star of the season.
As the terpsichorally-challenged, to say the least, Leading Lady and Demanding Diva, Madison Stratton imbues Dorothy Brock with equal parts Miss Hannigan, Norma Desmond and Carol Burnett, and plays her part with panache, flair, verve, nerve, and most of all total assurance. Haranguing chorus girls rather than orphans, flouncing about the stage alternately blinded by and in search of her spotlight, and appearing in a costume at the finale of “Dames” that rivals the “Saw it in the window and couldn;t resist” garment from the classic Gone with the Wind parody, Stratton is the very stereotype of the Fading Leading Lady And while not actually asking “Whatever happened to my part” there may be just a touch of the Lady of the Lake thrown in as well, as she wonders WHY the star only arrives in the last 10 seconds of the finale. Stratton has a glorious voice tailor-made for the role, and she gives her performance every ounce of her considerable acting and singing chops.
It’s hard not to be struck by an “Art Imitates Life” moment in Act 2, when Mac- Haydn veteran Stratton’s veteran leading lady Dorothy Brock literally reaches out to Revellesse’s nervous newbie Peggy Sawyer as she faces her first opening night in a leading role. Graciously, and surprisingly, recognizing budding talent and stardom when she sees it, Brock gives the fledgling Sawyer her best advice on how to take command of her coming moment in the spotlight, and utters the iconic show business prediction that Peggy is about to “go out there a youngster and come back a star. “ With “About a quarter to Nine”, Stratton and Revellese share a poignant, moving duet of 2 stars, one on the cusp of its rising, the other slowly fading into the twilight of her career. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility to imagine such a moment taking place in reality between the 2 performers, backstage, moments before this opening night,although Stratton is far from a fading star and will surely be shining as brightly as the moon over the theatre for many a season to come.
Jonah Hale, another returning Mac-Haydn alum, is a Clark-Gable-lookalike Leading Man Billy Lawlor, on the prowl for the innocent Peggy Sawyer from the moment she finds the courage to come through the stage door. “What makes tenors such wolves?” he wonders even as he begins his pursuit of the newcomer from Allentown. Hale may not be a wolf in real-life, but he IS a fine tenor, and his moments in the vocal spotlight, particularly in “Dames” and “We’re in the Money” are a joy to the ear. As for his pursuit of pretty Peggy, he’ll shortly discover he is doomed to disappointment, as the attraction between the Julian Marsh and the fresh-faced girl from Allentown becomes more palpable with each passin song and scene.
Thank Kristen Clark Bielefeldt and Jake Koch for their spot-on turns as almost “2nd Banana” comic relief as co-writer and producers Maggie Jones and Bert Barrie. Their antics in “Shuffle off to Buffalo,” a marvelously staged number featuring the women of the ensemble and a most imaginative Pullman train car set piece, are delightful moments of broad comedy, coupled with fine singing and some pretty fancy footwork.
Brian Wagner as Abner Dillon,Dorothy’s despised but necessary to maintaining her tenuous position as Leading Lady of the Stage Sugar Daddy, and Arthur Beautel as Pat Denning, the man Dorothy truly loves, and eventually marries, give thoroughly believeable and committed performances in non-singing but plot-essential roles.
With the exception of the iconic “Lullaby of Broadway”, most of the musical numbers are not terribly memorable, nor are you likely to leave the theatre humming a melange of tunes. But as usual the cast gives every number their vocal all, and a sound system clearly free of some of last year’s challenges allows the audience to enjoy each note and harmony to the fullest. The ensemble and company cast, as is almost always the case at The Mac, is young, enthusiastic, dedicated, and most of all absolutely committed to their part in “putting on the show,” in more ways than one—that “show in a show” thing is on display from curtain up to company bow. One of the best parts of watching a Mac-Haydn show is watching the ensemble revel in their part in the production; their passion for “the biz” is always a joy to behold, and in 42nd Street, it is on display to the nth degree.
If there is one thing the Mac has always done well, it’s make those dancing feet fly, and this show is no exception. Choreographer Mandy Modic has drilled this cast into a well-oiled tapping machine, and those dancing feet get a workout in every cast number, from the opening Audition, to the full company rendition of “Dames”, and the iconic “Lullaby of Broadway”. But nowhere is her talent more on display than in the titular signature number 42nd Street, which builds to a vibrant, stage-shaking, foot-blurring ear-thumping , heart-pumping crescendo of dance—it is a truly glorious paean to the world of Broadway, and life “in show biz.” and deservedly garnered the loudest applause of the evening.
Costumes by Bethany Marx are superb, particularly in the company and ensemble dance numbers. From the red, white and blue bathing suited “Dames” to the sparkling green and white outfits featured in “We’re in the Money.”, Marx designed the perfect palate for every scene and every number. There is an almost Bob Mackie-esque look to several numbers, with variations on patterns and colors but not merely duplicated for each performer.
This review would be remiss in failing to offer special kudos to the oft-unsung backstage heroes/heroines known as Dressers. Their quick change artistry was a sight (not) to behold especially in “Dames”, as the women went from bathing beauties to gowned goddesses seemingly in the blink of an eye, while the men appeared in full white tuxedos in equally no time.
Lighting by Andrew Gmoser admirably supports the production, although a few moments seemed perhaps a bit too bright, white and glaring, and the lighting choices made for “In the Money” cast an almost Martian-like greenish-white glow over the performers, which was perhaps, hopefully, not the intention.
As is always the case when he captains a ship….ummm…production, John Saunders directs the energetic,engaged, almost frenetic cast with his usual deft hand. He offers up a rich, delicious feast of swirling bodies, flashing feet, and clever staging, using every inch of the now-extended stage space to it best advantage.
42nd Street is what the Mac does best, each and every week of its summer season, and it is the perfect choice to open the 2023 season. The opening night performance was met with a well-deserved standing ovation. For an evening of Broadway-worthy dancing and singing, do yourself a favour. Come and meet those dancing feet, and come on along and listen to the “Lullaby of Broadway”, done to perfection at the Mac.
42nd Street runs June 22 through July 2, 2023, at the Mac-Haydn Theatre, in Chatham, NY. Music by Harry Warren. Lyrics by Al Dubin. Book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, based on the novel by Bradford Ropes.Original Direction and Choreopgraphy by Gower Champion. Originally produced on Broadway by David Merrick.
Directed by John Saunders. Choreographed by Mandy Modie. Music Director Eric Shorey. Assistant Music Director Alessandra Alcala. Set Designer Erin Kiernan. Lighting Designed by Andrew Gmoser.Costume Designer Bethany Marx. Props Design Adriana Ayala. Sound Designer Sean McGinley, Wig Design Emily Allen.
Cast: Gabe Belyeu (Julian Marsh), Madison Stratton (Dorothy Brock), Rachel Revellese (Peggy Sawyer), Jonah Hale (Billy Lawlor), Kristen Clark Bielefeldt (Maggie Jones), Jake Koch (Bert Barry), Arthur Beutel (Pat Denning), Brian Wagner (Abner Dillon), Trevor Squires (Andy Lee), Bella DePaola(Annie), Taylor Sheppard (Phyllis), Fiona Phelps (Diane), Clementine Kline (Gladys), Jerome Byrne(Mac/Frankie). Members of the Ensemble: Belle Babcock,Neal Bechman, Ricky Dobbs, Ofer Gordon, Kassi McMillan, Mark Russ
42nd Street runs June 22 through July 2 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre 1925 NY-203 Chatham, NY 12037. 518-392-9292. Running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.