Dallas — Busby Berkeley’s 1933 film 42nd Street created a certain mythological archetype for the performing arts. It highlights a desire that perhaps transcends the field altogether: the chance to rise above the monotony of the crowd and be noticed, or even chosen. Dallas Summer Musicals closes out its season with the stage version of the “Song and Dance Fable of Broadway” featuring the biggest tap dancing ensemble audiences have seen in a while at the Music Hall at Fair Park. It will run for one more week at Bass Performance Hall, presented by Performing Arts Fort Worth.
Based on the novel by Bradford Ropes, the story takes audiences back to the heart of the Great Depression, as famed director Julian Marsh (Matthew J. Taylor) attempts to stage one more big hit. Peggy Sawyer (Caitlin Ehlinger) arrives from a small town with big dreams of being a Broadway star, yet little experience. Although cast as a chorus girl, she receives her big break when leading lady Dorothy Brock (Kaitlin Lawrence) gets injured.
With book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble and direction/choreography by Gower Champion, the musical incarnation first appeared in 1980 as a successful movie adaptation, winning Tony awards for Best Musical and Best Choreography. A plethora of lyrical hits by Harry Warren and Al Dubin (many of which come from other well-known Berkeley films) provide ample opportunities for spirited dance sequences. Revived in 2001 with direction by Bramble and choreography by Randy Skinner, the opening sequence still dazzles as the curtain slowly rises on a 30-member unison tap sequence, proving that this show is first and foremost a dancing production.
The musical numbers alone are worth the trip, plus a few impressive performances, which is a good thing, because other elements of the show are simply tepid. But let’s start with the good news.
The number of tap-heavy musicals continues to rise—as evidenced by Book of Mormon, Shuffle Along, and others—but a synchronized hoofing ensemble is still a bit of a delightful rarity. So, when just about every song includes some form of rhythmic foot percussion, the cast has to be on their game.
And this group truly shuffles up to the challenge. Standout moments include “We’re in the Money,” “Go into Your Dance,” and of course the final titular number, with the glorious staircase and sparkling lights. Costumes add lovely pizazz, as designer Roger Kirk relives the glitz of 1930s musicals with loads of color and shine. The color coordinating tap shoes prove to be a huge hit.
Taylor commands the stage as the dictatorial director, and while he has some amazingly fervent pipes, we sadly only get to experience the full weight of them during a short reprise from “42nd Street” as he closes out the show.
The best overall performer, though, is Blake Stadnik. Playing Billy Lawler, Peggy’s romantic interest, he smooth talks his way through the show with nostalgic grace and wit. A great physical actor, as well, he could make any woman swoon with his body language, but it’s his tap skills that truly astound.
Supporting lead Natalia Lepore Hagan as Annie shines, as does Britte Steele. Her portrayal of Maggie Jones might be a bit overdone, but her line delivery and range make her a joy to watch. Orchestral moments (led by music director J. Michael Duff) offer toe-tapping and head-bobbing tunes, and the cast’s interactions with the pit are simply hilarious (proving that a live orchestra is absolutely essential).
Other leading performances, however, fall just a hair shy of the mark. They’re not bad or dull, they just don’t quite live up to the hype of the show. Ehlinger has the part of the shy, naïve girl with rose-colored glass down pat, but a little too much. Her breathless line delivery and constant dreamy expression go overboard, but a lovely singing voice and lightning-fast feet make up for it.
Lawrence is also hit-or-miss as the aging diva Dorothy Brock. She has the snarky moments sharpened to a T, and while her voice is also admirable, she comes across as stoic and robotic when she sings or attempts niceties.
Other speaking moments from the ensemble fall either slightly flat or rise too dramatically, never fully hitting that satisfying spot in between. Vocals are pretty decent, although some of the ladies’ parts climb to an uncomfortable shrill. But again, they’re a sensational tapping unit.
It’s a non-Equity show, making this the third straight one in a mostly memorable season. Running about two hours and 20 minutes with intermission, the closing tap number makes it all worthwhile.