By Ian Rigg
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player. That struts and frets his hour upon the stage. And then is heard no more.” – Macbeth
Julian Marsh: You’re all just specks of dust in my show.
Peggy Sawyer: Yes, but if you put the specks of dust together, you get something alive and beautiful that can reach out and touch thousands of people.
Nostalgia literally means, “the pain from an old wound.” 42nd Street was a nostalgia piece even in its inception in 1980, adapted from the 1933 movie musical. People love looking back on bygone eras, but they love looking back on them with rose-colored glasses. They appreciate the aesthetics but overlook the atrocities. They look back on the shadows and spectres of days past, yearning to visit, denying that it’s all gone.
42nd Street is a musical that, on its surface, appears to be mere fun and frivolous escapism. It’s a classic tale of backstage capers, miscommunication and misunderstandings, with a show within a show that MUST GO ON. In Broadway in Chicago’s rendition however, more facets of the era are illuminated under a modern lens.
The new touring production of 42nd Street is a musical of light, but also of shadow, of glitz and glamor, but also grime, a meditation on the enormous and ephemeral nature of theatre. “They’re side by side, they’re glorified, Where the underworld can meet the elite, Forty-Second Street.”
Everything about the production, from the acting style, to the steps, to the costume, to the ornate Cadillac Palace theater itself, hearkens back to the era in which it is set. It is an authentic approximation of a 1930s musical, where for a few dollars audiences could escape the bleak and barren banality of their deprived lives, and immerse themselves in an elegant, excellent escape in the gilded, vainglorious alternate reality set on the stage.
Underneath the show’s sparkle and spectacle is an existential undercurrent masked by the musical extravaganza. In an early number, “Shadow Waltz,” clever staging and choreography with lights gives Dorothy Brock a stunning shadow play. Despite being played for laughs, this may be the first glimpse of the show’s sadder underbelly. She is projecting shadows on the wall not unlike the shadows on the wall in Plato’s Myth of the Cave, where an underground and unaware populace watches shadows flicker, unaware of their true reality.
A musical of this nature is marvelous, but in 1933 it would be an opiate at the orpheum. Outside the theater, the Great Depression was in full swing, with desolation and despair to spare. But inside, everything is excellent. The candy-colored costumes and stellar sequins stand in stark contrast to the actual aesthetic of the time period. The actors are standing in a chorus line, not a bread line. It’s mirthful, merry, and magnificent in all the ways life outside is not. Modern audiences, living in a not necessarily dissimilar time of economic hardship, scarcity of work, and demagogues exploiting destitute people’s fears, will find their troubles similarly dispelled by the dazzling dancing and phenomenal performance put on by these players. The undertones are there for those who notice (or even want to notice them), but the overtones will no doubt be enjoyed by all.
This outstanding production is orchestrated by experts. Between director Mark Bramble (who also co-authored the show), choreographer Randy Skinner, and music director Todd Ellison, the name of the game is precision. The show is phenomenal due to its pure precision, overseen by Bramble beautifully. While it’s doubtful he was as tyrannical as his character Julian Marsh, he no doubt took every bit of care in overseeing the show. There is not a single tap out of place. Thanks to Skinner, the dance numbers are a tight thunder, a sonorous storm of sensational steps. Spontaneous applause during these numbers was well deserved. In the midst of this mad choreography, Ellison’s vocal and musical direction sing out, belted by the amazingly athletic actors.
This precision extends to everyone involved in the show. Seeing the spectacle, it’s no surprise the entire design team are Tony Award winners. Roger Kirk’s costumes are simply superb, even when they’re barely there. From three piece tuxedos to rehearsal attire to showgirl suits, the costumes radiate with sparkle and sequins and sumptuous colors. They are enormous in number and scale and change as quickly as the dance steps do. They play and pop particularly well off of Beowulf Boritt’s backgrounds, and splendid set. Ken Billington’s lighting design is masterful, and has incredible ingenuity: to truly highlight the dance steps, the spotlight is often on the actors’ feet before (or even if) it then extends to the rest of their body. Peter Fitzgerald’s sound design is sharp and lets us hear every gasp, every giggle, every tap step.
All the tools for success given to them by their team behind the scenes, the actors in this show knock it out of the park. Matthew J. Taylor leads the show, just as he leads the show within a show. As Julian Marsh, he is down on his luck, dictatorial, and delightful to watch, with a velvet voice that croons the Lullaby of Broadway. He is king of “this glorious gulch we call 42nd street”. He receives the final moments of the show, in a sincere, somber, splendid ribbon tied to the existential theme of this entertainment, as he stands in the empty theater, work light casting his enormous shadow on the wall.
His specks are all stupendous. Kaitlin Lawrence shines as the apparently acidic blonde Broadway leading lady, Dorothy Brock, for underneath the harsh exterior is a warm and sensitive soul. Britte Steele and Steven Bidwell steal scenes in both literal and meta senses as the comedy roles in the show, and in the show within a show, as the delightful duo Maggie Jones and Bert Barry. Blake Stadnik sings and taps his heart out as the amorous, adorable if airheaded tenor Billy Lawlor, to great aplomb. Many other delightful character actors round out the cast, like Mark Fishback as the wacky and wealthy sugar daddy Abner Dillon, Lamont Brown doing right as Marsh’s right hand man Andy Lee, DJ Canaday as the cute and crestfallen Pat Denning, and Natalia Lepor Hagan as Annie, who illuminates every scene she’s in with vivacious energy.
But it is without a doubt Caitlin Ehlinger’s show. A newcomer playing newcomer Peggy Sawyer, Ehlinger energizes the whole proceeding with delightful, doe-eyed dancing. Her voice, her moves, her character, are all crisp, compelling, and completely awe-inspiring. It’s amazing to watch her journey from smalltown stumbling to sultry stardom. She is Peggy, and Peggy is phenomenal.
Be sure to stick around for an encore after the final bows. As you applaud the greatest dancing of the show, you might remember Marsh’s words, that they’re all specks. They’re all shadows on the wall. And yet, audiences cheered from the moment the curtain opened, when all they saw were feet. They applauded long after the curtain closed. The specks came together and created something alive and beautiful, that reached out and touched thousands of people.
Broadway in Chicago presents “42nd Street” through March 20 at the Cadillac Palace, 151 W. Randolph Street, Chicago. More information and tickets ($19-$85 with discounts for groups of 10 or more) are available by calling (800) 775-2000 or online here.