By Barry Reszel
Even a full 24 hours after the final curtain of Drury Lane Theatre’s jaw dropping opening night production of 42nd Street, I am viscerally awed and emotionally spent.
This feeling is bringing me to do two things I seldom do:
1. I’m writing this review in the first person to highlight the personal impact this show is having on me.
2. I purchased some big payoff lottery tickets. And I’m using this space to pledge that if I win some (even partially) obscene sum of money, I will use it to move this magnificent production to Broadway.
That’s if some smart New York producer doesn’t beat me to it. Because this 42nd Street deserves the brightest theatrical lights in the world, and if it can open on Broadway by April, it will win the 2018 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical.
Though in truth, “revival” feels woefully inadequate. Because the amazingly creative decorating team of Director Michael Heitzman, Choreographer Jared Grimes and Musical Director Roberta Duchak took a house called 42nd Street, gutted it down to the studs, built an addition and created a modern mansion.
Sure, those familiar with the old place will still gratefully recognize the familiar layout. But every single room has been updated; infused with modern technological conveniences; and decked out with opulent art, first class comfort and joyful surprise.
This team is the musical theatre equivalent of Chip and Joanna Gaines. And their creation stirs an emotional connectedness to musical theatre I have not felt this intensely since first seeing Hamilton.
Indeed 42nd Street is still the tenderly well-known depression era story of Allentown, PA’s Peggy Sawyer, a naïve, young actress who leaves her small town for the chance at Broadway fame. (Read a full synopsis here if you’d like.) As with many classic musicals, the book (by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble) serves as glue to the music (by Harry Warren with lyrics by Al Dubin), including the memorable “We’re in the Money,” “Lullaby of Broadway” and “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” along with the title piece. And the music showcases the dance, primarily big-number tap.
The show has been around since its 1933 movie iteration starring Ginger Rogers, Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell, and some believe the film saved Warner Brothers from bankruptcy. First staged as a Broadway musical in 1980 starring Lyons Township High School alumna Wanda Richert as Peggy, 42nd Street ranks as one of Broadway’s longest-running musicals, winning Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Choreography in 1980 and for Best Revival in 2001.
But no one’s done a revival quite like Drury Lane’s.
It begins with Broadway Director Julian Marsh, marvelously portrayed and gloriously sung (“Lullaby of Broadway”) by Gene Weygandt, in a state of confusion, perhaps looking back on a 1930s audition for Pretty Lady—the Marsh musical extravaganza that would pull a storied director and, indeed, the whole entertainment industry out of their economic doldrums.
From there it becomes immediately clear that this is no one’s grandparents’ 42nd Street. With an intensely passionate infusion of jazz, electronics, soul and R&B, and a rethinking of an already excellent songbook (arrangements by Everett Bradley), every song but the played-straight “Lullaby of Broadway” is given a wonderful new orchestration and gloriously sung to pitch-perfection. If only Drury Lane would spring to cut a cast recording. This show truly deserves it. (Then again, if I win that lottery…)
Each reconsidered character (including one changed gender) provides modern insight to the story. And if a blindly cast, multi-racial ensemble like this can pull off 1930s New York without a second thought, well, let’s just agree we can put an end to that debate.
And then there’s the dance.
And right on (as well as in) the money.
Leading the terrific cast, NYU alumna Kimberly Immanuel is gorgeously thrilling as Peggy and Phillip Attmore is magnificent as her chic suitor/chick magnet, Billy Lawler. Suzzanne Douglas is a far realer Dorothy Brock than typically portrayed—infusing her soulful jazz style in multiple numbers (“About a Quarter to Nine” is truly breathtaking). As a veteran actor said after the opening night performance, “Of course Dorothy Brock is talented or she never would have been famous and never would have been cast.”
Kudos, too, to the magnificent dance caption Annie Jo Ermel as chorus girl Phyllis; Justin Brill, Erica Evans and the impeccable Donica Lynn as members of the Pretty Lady creative team; Brandon Springman as Brock love interest Pat Denny; Cedric Young as the too-invested investor Abner Dillon; and the 20 ensemble members who could certainly teach Arthur Murray a thing or two.
Backstage plaudits first belong to the wondrous costumes of Broadway veteran Emilio Sosa and wigs/hair by Claire Moores. The simple, functional brick and steel backstage set by Collette Pollard is the perfect backdrop for the production’s awe-inspiring choreography and dramatic lighting effects by Mike Baldassari. Drury Lane’s typical crystalline sound is courtesy of Ray Nardelli.
All this said, the lottery tickets are simply my way of putting money where my mouth is or putting up so I don’t have to shut up.
And so I implore you to listen, Chicagoland musical theatre aficionados: There is no excuse. NOT. A. SINGLE. ONE. to miss this magnificent, life-changing reimagination of a beloved musical.
Before it heads to Broadway.
Drury Lane Theatre presents “42nd Street” through January 7, 2018, at 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Brett Beiner.