That imaginary fourth wall between the audience and the stage is a reinforcing illusion of glamour and beauty. It's the border between real life and fantasy. Escapism at its finest. And yet, from the perspective of the performer, the divide is not so romantic. And there's certainly not as much glamour as is perceived.
Yes, to borrow from an old adage, there was a lot of sausage that had to be made before the audience got to have it for dinner.
And 42nd Street, tapping up a storm at Casa Mañana, is a look inside the Broadway sausage factory at the height of the Great Depression.
Famed director Julian Marsh (Ted Kōch) is mounting a new show as tryouts are held for chorus positions. Stumbling in late is Peggy Sawyer (Kirstin Tucker), the bright-eyed and bushy tailed newbie, and the audience's surrogate. She's the classic innocent ingénue archetype that would be played out if the original film hadn't essentially created it. Through pluck, talent, and a little bit of good fortune, Sawyer finds herself in the chorus.
The show itself, Pretty Lady, is led by tenor Billy Lawlor (Charles MacEachern) and fading star Dorothy Brock (Allison Briner), whose sugar daddy, Abner Dillon (Van Quattro), is financing the show. Complicating manners is Brock's lover, Pat Denning (Christopher J. Deaton), in a superfluous and largely unnecessary storyline that really only serves to humanize the Norma Desomnd-esque Brock.
Through the very literal application of the old superstitious theater code for good luck, "break a leg," the once chorus girl gets her shot at the big time. And naturally, since this is a big Broadway show after all, the ending is predictable, but warranted and desired by the audience. It's a classic rags-to-riches story, almost literally.
But 42nd Street's true merits lie in the construction of the show itself. Given the element of the show within a show, Harry Warren (music), Al Dubin (lyrics) and Michael Stewart and Mark Ramble (book), use the Broadway and theatrical context to provide commentary on the real world events of its time. The show Pretty Lady incorporates the depression in its plot, and the two shows general overlap in theme enough that characters can go in and out of the song and dance numbers seamlessly. In this way, it makes the context of a musical more natural and believable, shading that line between fantasy and reality. And it provides an avenue for self-reflexive observation. The writing is truly something to behold. It's masterful.
Beyond the words though is the dancing. 4nd Street is a tap show through and through. For those fans of classic theatrical dance, this is a show that's certain to excite. And Casa spares no expense enlisting a cast full of talented tappers to really give the show what it needs.
And finally, this is one of those musicals where even the casual fan will recognize several songs, particularly "We're in the Money," "Lullabye of Broadway" and the title song. In fact, the only song that sticks out like a sore thumb, and it's a carryover from the original film, is "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," a song from Pretty Lady that really only serves to dampen the momentum of 42nd Street as it builds to its conclusion.
Director Tim Bennett has assembled an adept cast for this particularly demanding show. As already mentioned, the dancing, choreographed by Dontee Kiehn, is fascinating, and they've found a cast who can pull it off. Particularly, Tucker shines in the production showcasing a triple threat of expert dancing, beautiful singing and engaging acting. She's a serious talent and owns the role completely. No one would ever guess she's not already the pro she is.
Kōch and Briner also fill their roles impressively. Kōch is abrasive with an underlying warmth that creates its own little unique soft spot in the audience's heart. And Briner lends a humanity and vulnerability to Brock that goes beyond what's even scripted.
Both MacEachern and Quattro leave something to be desired, though in MacEachern's case it could simply be a matter of being too subtle with the choice to play his role intentionally over the top. Quattro looked as if it were his first time on stage, which is far from true. If there was an intention there, it was unclear at Sunday's matinee.
The chorus though, is wonderful. Led by the magnetic Paige Wheat as Ann Reilly, the chorus' enthusiasm and commitment provide the strong base for the principles to perform from. They represent the true iteration of a fully formed cast because it's clear they're all talented enough to play any role, and that's the kind of performer you always want.
It's no accident that 42nd Street, despite only premiering on the stage in 1980, is already considered a classic. Its source material and setting aide in that, but the bottom line is that the show is beautifully put together. There really isn't a weak point to it and any critique of it would be picking nits.
And in Casa Mañana's case, they've created an exceedingly well executed and remarkably entertaining production of this definitive show. No broken legs necessary.