The return of "42nd Street" is welcome for many reasons, chief among them the fact that it is a show that rises and falls on the basis of the cast's talent. Happily, this "42nd Street" is loaded with talent. And you know it as soon as the curtain rises on 24 pairs of tap-dancing feet. The innocent reader might assume talent was a prerequisite for Broadway musicals. At one time it was. People with talent, however, are often great nuisances. So in recent years a trailblazing effort has been made by the Brits and the folks at Disney to minimize the necessity for them. Someone who plays a teapot or a big furry cat may or may not have talent. It doesn't really matter. But someone who is part of a line of tap-dancers executing ingenious choreography can't fake it, especially when just beyond the footlights sits a public yearning to hear the sound of 48 cleated shoes tapping in unison. When "42nd Street" opened on Broadway in 1980, it had a spectacular production. The death of Gower Champion, the show's director and choreographer, just before the opening-night curtain added to the sense of drama. The show ran for 8 1/2 years. Randy Skinner, who was Champion's assistant, has restaged the current version, which has three new songs. (Since one of them is "I Only Have Eyes for You," I hope it's clear that all the "new" songs are actually old ones.) Skinner's dances are dazzling, and the large chorus performs them with incredible zest and precision. My impression is that the dances that are less successful are the narrative ones (like the one where the neophyte, Peggy Sawyer, causes havoc learning the routines, or the melodramatic "Lullaby of Broadway"). This is true of the show in general. The production numbers sparkle but the storytelling is weak. Needless to say, the story "42nd Street" tells is not profound, but it does work better if you really believe that producer Julian Marsh is desperate to make his new musical a hit. Michael Cumpsty, so admirable last year in "Copenhagen," is quite miscast as Marsh, which shortchanges both the melodrama and the camp. As the temperamental star whose injury gives the understudy her big break, Christine Ebersole is smashing. Her great voice, too long absent from Broadway musicals, gives "You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me" the proper luster. Mary Testa, a splendid comic performer, has finally gotten the role she deserves as a manic writer. Most important, the dancing leads - Kate Levering as the lucky understudy, David Elder as her boyfriend in the chorus and Michael Arnold as the dance captain - are all sensational. The real star, of course, is the ensemble, whose great talent and dedication give the show something to lift your spirits.
Surprise, surprise! Happy surprise! Every right and proper Broadway season needs what it calls "a sleeper" - one of those unexpected triumphs that creep up almost unheralded in the hectic barrage of Broadway hype. Even so, some of these somnambulistic dazzlers are more unexpected than others.
Last night at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, emerging from that smoke screen of glory surrounding "The Producers," a smashing revival of "42nd Street" came to town just in time to nip safely under the deadline for Tony nominations.
This supercharmer is a revival - almost a resuscitation - that doesn't march in with the high-class designer label of "re-invention" 'round its neck, like Sam Mendes' "Cabaret," Susan Stroman's "The Music Man" or the much-awaited Trevor Nunn stagings of "Oklahoma!" and "My Fair Lady."
No, this is a "42nd Street" that sounds just like business as usual. Even on the Playbill, Gower Champion, the original director and choreographer, who died 21 years ago on the day of the first production's opening, gets his name in larger type than the present director and choreographer. And the new production was staged by the surviving author of the book, Mark Bramble, and the choreography is by Randy Skinner, neither household names. The leading man, Michael Cumpsty, although a highly distinguished actor, has never previously graced a musical.
The omens were not exactly exciting. Yet this new "42nd Street," at last on 42nd Street itself, flew like a magic bird from the overture on.
The show is based on the 1933 movie of the same name with Warner Baxter - who first had that classic line, "You're going out there a youngster, but you've gotta come back a star!" - as a director/producer trying to make a comeback, Bebe Daniels as his spoiled star who literally breaks her leg and Ruby Keeler as the tap-dancing chorine who saves the show.
The originators of the musical, Michael Stewart and Bramble, took the movie script, which was based on a novel by Bradford Ropes, and fashioned a slight but solid book that had something of the ironic tone of then-fashionable '30s pastiches like off-Broadway's "Dames at Sea."
The original movie had only about four songs in it, by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, but they were smartly supplemented by other hit numbers from the Warren and Dubin songbook. This time around, two numbers have been added and one excised.
Now, a Broadway musical revival that doesn't intend to offer a fresh viewpoint on the material has only one real possibility of success. It must, absolutely must, be as good as, or better than, the original if rose-colored memories and nostalgic legends are to be stopped dead in their treacherous tracks.
This the new and, I think, improved "42nd Street," unexpectedly and triumphantly does. It's a whiz of a show that could send the Venus de Milo out tapping her toes and even snapping her fingers.
Some scenes - such as "We're in the Money" - have been left virtually as they were. And many of the changes Bramble has made are small but often significant, such as making Julian Marsh a far more romantic character, and leaving the ending much less ambiguous.
After all, the original show had a lot of pre-Broadway angst, and the new version is, under Skinner's supervision, choreographically far stronger - Gower Champion's homage to Busby Berkeley is made a homage to both of them. The new mirror dance is Berkeley brought to life, and the finale proves pure exhilaration.
Both the new scenery by Douglas W. Schmidt (very occasionally echoing the original Robin Wagner designs) and Roger Kirk's costumes are lavish displays of putting on the glitz. It all looks a million dollars - quite a few million dollars!
Not least, the production has been cast with exquisite care. The brilliantly no-nonsense Cumpsty brings a classic authority to the beleaguered director, Julian Marsh, and even delivers his songs with foghorn charm and confidence.
Christine Ebersole sings wonderfully while proving a comedy riot act as Dorothy Brock, the prima diva with a sugar daddy, and as ingenue show-saver Peggy Sawyer, the delicate Kate Levering dances up not just a storm but a veritable tidal wave.
But everyone is superb - the always admirable Mary Testa and Jonathan Freeman have never been better cast than here, as the writers of the show within the show; David Elder sings and dances with stylish ease as Billy Lawlor; and Mylinda Hull has fun as Anytime Annie.
It's a full house.
There's nothing like precision tap-dancing to turn a New York audience into a lab full of case studies for Dr. Pavlov. Throw us a big bunch of twinkly youngsters doing the same noisy step at the same moment, and we're beating our flippers together like the seals at feeding time. It's a conditioned reflex as old as the first chorus line.
This brazen show-biz physiology is being practiced full-strength in the premature revival of ''42nd Street,'' which opened last night at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts. The production -- in most respects, a faded fax of the last musical staged by the fabled Gower Champion -- is a full-frontal assault by rat-a-tat tap, with everything else taking a distant back seat.
If you're a fan of synchronized swimming teams, you may enjoy ''42nd Street,'' which, under the direction of Mark Bramble with choreography by Randy Skinner, approximates the human patterns of those Olympic athletes. If you are suffering from shell shock, you are advised to stay away, since the machine-gun noise of metal hitting wood has been amplified, suggesting a new sound system called Tap-surround.
If you're in search of a backstage musical that wears its personality above its ankles, you would do better to revisit ''Kiss Me, Kate'' or to join the line for tickets to ''The Producers.''
The idea for this revival must have seemed irresistible. Granted, the last ''42nd Street'' on Broadway, adapted from the classic Warner Brothers movie of 1933, closed only 12 years ago after an exhuasting 3,486 performances. But that was before dirty old Times Square was transformed into clean, happy Times Square Land.
You can imagine the corporate logic of it all. A) What could be better for this new theme park's show palace than the opulent, historically detailed Ford Center on 42nd Street? B) What better show to install in that theater than -- of course -- a newly opulent ''42nd Street,'' with its finger-snapping anthems to Broadway and Times Square?
Those anthems, by the immortal team of Harry Warren and Al Dubin, remain among the most infectious songs ever written about Manhattan, as energetic, tough-hearted and self-romanticizing as the island itself. No sooner does the orchestra at the Ford Center strike up the overture (beginning with ''We're in the Money'') than you feel yourself grinning.
That smile doesn't fade when the curtain rises just a foot or so to reveal several dozen sets of legs tapping to beat the band. It's a marvelous sight gag, a literal-minded rendering of the invitation of the show's title song: ''Come and meet those dancing feet.'' Unfortunately, that may be the last time you're fully happy at ''42nd Street.'' What follows isn't distasteful; it's just flavorless.
The ''42nd Street'' that opened in 1980 is now recalled by many as a major Broadway musical, but much of its legendary status has to do with the real-life drama surrounding its opening. It not only represented the blazing comebacks of two titans of the theater, the producer David Merrick and the director and choreographer Gower Champion. It also turned out to be the last show for Champion, whose death was announced -- in a shameless coup de théâtre -- by Merrick during curtain calls on opening night.
The drama within the musical, such as it was, was never much to talk about. Though the show featured an imaginative assortment of crowd-wowing routines by Champion, it never had anything like the Depression-era urgency of the movie that inspired it. The book, by Michael Stewart and Mr. Bramble, was minimal, a blunt chain of the most quoted lines from the film (most famously, ''You're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!'')
As Frank Rich pointed out then in his review in The New York Times, the show's perspective on its dated material was uncertain, stranded between spoof and sincerity. That's basically how I remember that production, too, although it seems positively electric compared to the current version of ''42nd Street,'' which has the thrice-watered-down feeling of a pastiche of a pastiche.
The show features some amusing moments from the ever-polished, ever-professional Michael Cumpsty (as the tyrannical, hard-bitten director) and Christine Ebersole (as the tyrannical, hard-bitten star who breaks her leg). By and large, however, the production's attitude toward its Broadway-as-fairy-tale plot is affectionately distant and stiff, like that of adults listening to someone else's 2-year-old saying the darned est things.
As a consequence, excepting the droll Ms. Ebersole, there doesn't seem to be one real character onstage, just a bunch of attractive dancing paper dolls. It is significant that Kate Levering, in the role of the ingénue who becomes an overnight sensation, is indistinguishable from the other chorines.
She's pin-up pretty, but she doesn't have the rough edges that made you root for Ruby Keeler (who couldn't stop looking at her feet). As the womanizing tenor, David Elder sings and dances pleasantly but is similarly individuality-free. Even those reliably brassy veterans Mary Testa and Jonathan Freeman, as a songwriting team, seem programmed in their zest.
Unlike Jerry Orbach, who brought a virile punch to the role, Mr. Cumpsty keeps his tough-talking character at arm's length. Everything he says seems framed in quotation marks. The talented cabaret performer Billy Stritch is hidden in the background of a nightclub routine. Only Ms. Ebersole, who has a sophisticated feel for the vocal styles of the period and an enjoyable relish for her character's nastiness, makes something close to a visceral link with her part.
That leaves us with the propulsive tapping-machine routines choreographed by Mr. Skinner, who was a dance assistant to Champion on the original ''42nd Street'' and who has borrowed liberally from his mentor; the Deco-seasoned, sherbet-colored sets by Douglas W. Schmidt, who appears to have borrowed liberally from Robin Wagner's designs from 1980 and Roger Kirk's lavish sparkle-plenty costumes.
There are moments when these ingredients come together in a cold blaze of synthetic glamour, of the sort found in floor shows in high-end hotels in Las Vegas. But the only thing about this latest ''42nd Street'' that I remember with fondness, other than its opening and the appealing song stylings of Ms. Ebersole, is a spectacle-free moment in which Ms. Levering's fledgling dancer first shows her stuff to a group of chorus girls.
The number is called ''Go Into Your Dance,'' and it offers the spark of a direct human connection between the song and its strutting performers. For just a few minutes -- and that's it, kids -- you understand why these young women believe, as a line from the show has it, that ''the most glorious words in the English language'' are musical comedy.
When it comes to musical theater, there really is no such thing as a guilty pleasure. If a show lifts your spirit with song, dance and spectacle without sinking your soul with shallow bombast, there's no shame in succumbing.
So it was with a clear conscience that I left the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, where an ebullient revival of the 1980 Broadway hit 42nd Street (*** out of four) opened Wednesday night.
Set in 1933 and based on a series of films from that era, this frothy fable of a bright-eyed chorus girl who gets her big break filling in for a star was already quaint when it first arrived. After two decades of David Letterman, MTV and a general mass-media love affair with hipper-than-thou irony, lines such as "You're going out there a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!" seem even more dated and ripe for camp.
Fortunately, the cast and crew of this new production walk that fine line between cheeky charm and self-conscious kitsch. Co-author Mark Bramble, who with Michael Stewart adapted the script from a novel by Bradford Ropes, directs his facile, energetic players with wit and grace, acknowledging the show's inherent hokum with nary a smug snicker or smirk.
Leading that cast are Broadway veterans Michael Cumpsty and Christine Ebersole and relative newcomer Kate Levering as Peggy Sawyer, the small-town ingenue whom fortune smiles upon. Levering, who gave a memorably perky performance in last season's revival of The Music Man, proves her own star potential here, combining a tender earnestness with a bracing, athletic dance style that veers from impish buoyancy to slinky eroticism.
As Dorothy Brock, the diva whom Peggy replaces, Ebersole mugs elegantly and sings beautifully, lending a silky resonance to torch songs such as I Only Have Eyes for You and About a Quarter to Nine. Cumpsty is dashing and deftly wry as Julian Marsh, the prematurely crusty director who is disarmed by Peggy's idealism.
Mary Testa is similarly engaging as a wisecracking writer/producer/actress, though David Elder is a bit too smarmy as a leading man on the make. A droll Michael McCarty fares better as Dorothy's giddily lecherous suitor.
But the heart of 42nd Street lies in splashy production numbers that showcase the entire ensemble, celebrating the talents and dreams of aspiring performers everywhere. Choreographer Randy Skinner adapts and embellishes Gower Champion's original dances with delirious vitality, crafting routines that spill across the stage like ear-to-ear grins. Roger Kirk's costumes and Douglas W. Schmidt's scenic design add to the sugar rush, creating a cascade of confectionary colors from cotton-candy pastels to lollipop reds, oranges and yellows.
At times, the sweetness becomes overbearing or borders on banality. But no matter. As Julian tells Peggy during one of her rare pensive moments, "Think of musical comedy — the most glorious words in the English language," and you'll appreciate 42nd Street for what it is: a swell exercise in classic showbiz escapism.
In case you hadn't heard, the '80s are back. Already. In fashion, in politics and now on Broadway, where "42nd Street," a very '80s take on backstage pictures of the '30s, is being revived in a gaudy, relentless production directed by Mark Bramble that pays determined tribute to the Gower Champion original in all its David Merrick-style opulence.
That production opened Aug. 26, 1980. Its place in Broadway history was assured when the producer took the stage after the first performance to announce, in a gesture that by itself might have won him the epithet Abominable Showman, that the show's director-choreographer Champion had died that very day. The stunned cast burst into tears; reporters raced up the aisles; the show went on to run for more than 3,000 performances.
In retrospect, what was most notable about the production was not its resurrection of the cliches and conventions of old Broadway, as preserved in '30s pictures and echoed in Merrick's grandstanding gesture. More significantly, the show helped usher in a new era on Broadway in which spectacle and size, endless runs, big budgets and advance ticket sales would make headlines more often than artistic accomplishments. The mania for the megahit that swept the film business spread to Broadway -- even if Broadway had to import most of its megahits of the decade from London. And while it was a new show, strictly speaking, "42nd Street" also pointed toward the era of the mega-revival that continues today.
Audiences at the Ford Center will not, of course, be pondering the show's significance in Broadway history. From the moment the curtain goes up on a veritable forest of dancing gams, they'll probably be delighted by the old-fashioned, lavish showmanship that shines from every last sequin of this glittering pinball machine of a musical. "42nd Street" seeks to slay the audience with its wow of an opening number, and keeps slaying us with mechanical regularity till curtain time some 2-1/2 hours later.
The musical is peopled not by characters but by showbiz archetypes: Dorothy Brock, the dragon-lady star ripe for a comeuppance, played with a delicious sense of style by Christine Ebersole, who also sings sensationally; the imperious director Julian Marsh (Michael Cumpsty, making the best of an ill-fitting role), who proffers hammy exhortations to the kids to go out there and knock 'em dead; the anonymous chorine -- might as well call her the Ruby Keeler -- who becomes an overnight star when the leading lady gets injured, a role danced sensationally and acted facelessly by Kate Levering.
Do we care about these folks? Not really; indeed, we can't always pick them out amid the busy traffic of the show's expensive, colorful sets by Douglas Schmidt (I somehow missed Billy Stritch, who's listed in the program as playing one Oscar), lit alternately stylishly and clumsily by Paul Gallo. (Distracting shifts in the backstage scenes seem to suggest a chorus gypsy playing with the light board.) The thin characterizations are likewise overwhelmed by Roger Kirk's splashy costumes.
The book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble still doesn't quite seem to know if it wants to wink at the cardboard nature of the characters, and the dialogue is hoary beyond description: Before the curtain comes down Marsh has referred to Broadway as both a "glittering gulch" and "glorious gulch." But most in the audiences have some kind of affection for the conceits and the cliches the characters embody, and that's sufficient to keep us awake for the brief bursts of exposition between bouts of song and dance.
No problem staying awake during those, of course: The eyeballs are all but seared by the scorching heat of the big dance numbers. Champion's choreography, here re-created by Randy Skinner, drew with immense style and erudition on various showbiz traditions, from the splashy regimentation of Busby Berkeley to the lush, ballet-influenced romanticism of MGM musicals of two decades later. His ingenuity and artistry still are exciting to see.
But in the Ford Center, a forbidding house that keeps the audience at a cool distance from the white-hot energies of the show's best numbers, what you take away is mostly an impression of size and scope and athleticism rather than real charm. The theater also places the stars of the show at a disadvantage as they attempt to breathe some life into sketchily defined characters.
Succeeding best in this battle are Ebersole, a knockout comedienne, as noted, with powerful vocal chops, and the ever-energetic Mary Testa, more Merman-esque than ever as the show's wisecracking songwriter Maggie Jones. Testa's natural verve, machine-tooled timing and jazzy vocals give a much-needed taste of earthiness to the rote manipulations of the backstage story. As the leading tenor Billy Lawlor, David Elder is a bright, shiny presence and a remarkable athlete as he flips back and forth on a dime, literally, in "We're in the Money."
The Harry Warren-Al Dubin songs stitched into the musical are certainly a pleasure to hear, even if none is rendered with the wit and sensitivity that cabaret singer Mary Cleere Haran, for one, has discovered in them (Ebersole comes closest with a relatively delicate "I Only Have Eyes for You"). But subtlety and sensitivity are not the point here: "42nd Street" seduces its audiences with excess, and the new production certainly isn't stingy in the excess department. One leaves with images of silver-spangled chorines burned onto the retinas, feeling positively pummeled by tap shoes.