Neither naughty nor bawdy nor gaudy on “42nd Street”

Jul 10, 2007 at 3:22 pm

Based on the classic backstage movie musical, “42nd Street” should be all about the choreography, originally set by legendary Hollywood musical choreographer Busby Berkeley. He left big shoes to fill.
Faced with the task of bringing his vision to the local stage, John Paul Gamoke, whom Music Theatre Louisville chose to direct this production, apparently decided not to even try. His vision of “42nd Street” is only a vague shadow of the original 1933 film and the 1980 Broadway musical.

Gamoke’s production is a sluggish, fourth-generation pastiche whose pieces don’t mesh. Maybe he should have taken notes from the show’s lead male character, Julian Marsh, a musical theater director who is superbly played by MTL producer Peter Holloway. This character is known for rigorously forging great performances from his actors. If only Gamoke had done the same.

Actors need guidance and imagination from a director who sees the “big picture.” Clearly, the flat performances are not the actors’ faults because in other, more imaginative MTL productions, such as “Hello, Dolly!,” these same actors exhibited brilliance. Here many actors are left flailing their arms and searching for their spaces.
Still, there are compelling performances. Abigail Maupin renders the aging diva Dorothy Brock as a strong woman you don’t want to mess with. Her voice comes from deep within her soul. While she is authoritative, whether singing or speaking, the sound engineer failed to compensate for her powerful delivery. Other cast members turned in notable performances, including Tyler Bliss (as Billy Lawlor) and Gregory Maupin (as Pat Denning). Claire Longest (as ingénue Peggy Sawyer) sang well but overplayed her character’s timidity. With proper direction, she might have toned down her exaggerated flinching upon being spoken to and infused Peggy with more authenticity.

The lack of clear directorial vision affects everything we see on stage. Where dance routines call for lavish Art Deco sets, there are few dazzling stage sets to speak of. Several numbers require bombastic backdrops, but we got only a minimalist blue screen. Instead of elegantly draped 1930s gowns, we got Dust Bowl-style, flower-printed dresses and wide-brimmed men’s hats; as tacky, garish and counterfeit as any worn on “The Lawrence Welk Show.”

“We’re in the Money” should have been a tour de force but consists of little more than a sleepy chorus line carrying giant coins. The set of “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” is supposed to convey sleeping cars on a train, but it looks more like the “The Hollywood Squares.” (I kept hoping Paul Lynde would pop out from the center square.)

Instead of well-formed human geometry, we often get many dancers crammed together, while others are out in left field. Honestly, the choreography is more like that of a middle-school, tap recital than a professional performance. The sound engineering and lighting are amateurish. Microphones are often off, then abruptly turned on halfway through actors’ lines. Spotlights seek out actors like a lost puppy trotting after its master (rather like the actors in search of a director).

When the public forks over $22.50 for a show, they deserve better. One scene in the show provides the perfect metaphor for this production: Three chorines dressed like Depression-era children fish in a drain for change (yet, in this production, we aren’t sure what they’re doing). They pull up a coin, expecting a penny and hoping for a nickel. These lucky kids get a dime, and we, the audience, are short-changed a show that promises a spectacle.

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