Arts & Culture » Theater

Unhappy Feat

Between Broadway and St. Louis, 42nd Street got mugged


What a history 42nd Street has. The original 1933 movie, with its eye-popping Busby Berkeley choreography, instantly became the definitive backstage musical. Although its plot about the travails of mounting a Broadway extravaganza often has been copied and its dialogue parodied ("You're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star," is now the ultimate theater cliché), rarely has that film been equaled for its conviction, its energy and, yes, its grit. 42nd Street, remember, was released during the depths of the Depression. The climactic title-song production number built to a fever pitch of frenzied desperation.

In 1980, Broadway producer (and St. Louis native) David Merrick hired virtuoso director/choreographer Gower Champion to transform the Warner Brothers film into a sumptuous new exercise in nostalgia. Champion promptly lightened the mix by tossing out the storyline in which the ailing director risks dying if he continues to work. Then, in one of those freak incidents in which life imitates artifice, at the triumphant opening-night curtain call Merrick announced the unexpected death, earlier that day, of Gower Champion.

The Merrick/Champion soufflé, which racked up a phenomenal eight-year run, was still a warm memory when a revival was announced for 2001. To some cynics, that seemed a little hasty. But the new version captivated Broadway reviewers, who proclaimed it even more splendiferous than the 1980 original.

Alas, you wouldn't know what all the fuss is about from the scaled-down, underacted, over-mugged touring production on display at the Fox. A musical that was created as a valentine has been reduced to a lugubrious lampoon.

"We have no star," director Julian Marsh moans at the top of Act 2, after the leading lady has broken her ankle. Truer words were never spoken. When this tour began last summer, its opportunistic producers announced that the show would be the star -- which might be a nice idea in theory (not to mention being easy on the payroll), but it's not true. What is a show, anyway, if not the people who are in it? Here, the endeavor is torpedoed by a paucity of talent.

The top-billed female lead (names aren't important -- you wouldn't know them anyway) can't say a line without waving her arms and contorting her body into weird, unnatural poses. Marsh, the male lead, yells a lot -- barking lines rather than believing them -- but he lacks presence, an aura of authority. Maybe he would project credibility in a musical set in a football locker room, but there's nothing theatrical about him.

We won't even discuss the woman who shamelessly resorts to turning cartwheels; didn't that kind of "love me" performance go out with Martha Raye? Every time these -- and so many other -- leading players grind the action to an embarrassing halt, the intrepid dancing chorus, like a toe-tapping cavalry regiment, rides to the rescue with energetic production numbers that are as pleasing to the eye as the bright Easter parade of lighting effects that backs them up. But with no story to support, the elaborate dance numbers soon lose context.

Fortunately, in the pivotal role of the young Ruby Keeler-like chorus girl who must save the show, Catherine Wreford does precisely that. In merciful contrast to the other principals, her seemingly effortless performance is as refreshing as a sip of cool well water. A nod, too, to Daren Kelly. In the thankless role of the leading lady's secret lover, he is so natural, it's as if he's in a completely different show -- one that might even engage the viewer's attention.

One line of 1933 movie dialogue that did not make the transfer to stage occurs when director Marsh sneers, "What do you think we're putting on, a revival?" As this production painfully reminds us, there's something worse than a Broadway revival -- the national tour of a revival that has the gall to charge top dollar without delivering top-dollar value.

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