"THINK MUSICAL COMEDY. . .the most glorious words in the English language," crows Julian Marsh, the gruff but gentle caricature of a Broadway producer in 42nd Street. Believing that one of the most entertaining subjects to be made into musical theater is musical theater itself. David Merrick (a real-life Julian Marsh) has taken a 1930s musical, wrapped it in extravagant sets and costumes, revitalized extensive tap-dancing routines for the familiar score, and recreated what he modestly calls "the song and dance fable of Broadway." Indeed, Merrick has brought back the old-style high-kicking Broadway musical of elaborate production numbers connected only loosely by a tired and cliched book.
Whereas a more modern fable such as A Chorus Line bounces an agreeable score off an interesting and original view of backstage life. 42nd Street attempts no such creativity, in part because the book as well as the music is more than 50 years old. It takes on the by-now predictable story of starry eyed naive Peggy Sawyer coming from the rural hinterlands to make her mark in the flashy world of big city show business. After two hours she has risen from a chorus girl to the star of the show, maybe even falling in love on the way. After hearing Marsh utter such gems as, "Sawyer, you're going out there a young stand-in, but you have to come back a star," you realize this is not going to be a thought-provoking night of theater.
After accepting that, of course, you can sit back, smile, and watch with wide eyes. With all the glittering costumes and the rotating mirrored sets, however, the extravagance at times seems almost embarrassing. The book is just too silly, and quite a few of the songs ring flat in the contemporary ear. Among the notable exceptions to this are some familiar hummable-or perhaps more appropriately, toe-tapping-numbers, including "We're in the Money," Lullaby of Broadway," Shuffle Off to Buffalo," and the title song.
YET CLEVER STAGING and some fine performances bring a freshness to the cliches. As Marsh, Barry Nelson brings a deft comic touch to the role, allowing us to see moments of softness. Only when Nelson tries to sing does the quality drop, but since this seems to be in character it doesn't detract from his portrayal. Dolores Gray's nasal, somewhat harsh voice is rather discordant, but is also in keeping with the arrogant character of the untalented prima donna whose injury opens the road to fame for our heroine Peggy Sawyer, although she often appears a bit too secure for a little girl who just got off the bus from Allentown. Pa. Finally, Bibi Osterwald brings a certain spunky energy to a rather cardboard character of singing coach. Unfortunately, despite the fine performances, this production is still plagued by some technical difficulties with sound and music levels, but such problems no doubt will be worked out soon.
So if a nostalgic penchant for traditional Broad way spectacles enchants you one can not do much better than 42nd Street. The music, the costumes, the story, and of course the tap-dancing is of the straight forward old-fashinoed make-them-leave-the-theatre-happy-and-humming type, it worked well enough during the Depression. And it provides a rather harmless evening of musical theatre.