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Madly tapping out the beat of dancing feet in grand ’42nd Street’

A scene from the national touring production of "42nd Street," at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. (Photo: Chris Bennion)

From whatever step on the stairway to paradise he might be perched at the moment, Busby Berkeley, that legendary Broadway and Hollywood choreographer of the 1920s and ’30s, must be looking down at the national touring company edition of  “42nd Street” that arrived at the Cadillac Palace Theatre on Wednesday night and cheering loudly.

From the moment this extraordinarily lavish production teasingly raises its curtain to show a fabulously percussive platoon of tap dancers (initially just from the knees down), in an audition scene that puts “A Chorus Line” to shame, this tap dance-motored sensation beats out steps with such precision, drive, variation and marathon-like aerobic brilliance that you can feel a rhythmic giddiness take hold in the theater. And the fun doesn’t stop until the knockout finale, set to the show’s title song.

Each of choreographer Randy Skinner’s grand-scale production numbers keeps outdoing the one before it. And his dancers, led by the seemingly exhaustion-proof Caitlin Ehlinger as Peggy Sawyer (aka “Allentown”) — the naive newcomer to New York as the chorus girl who becomes an overnight star — could easily convince you they’ve just stepped out of a Depression-era time capsule, with their shapely legs and stylish tap dance shorts. Ehlinger, who is center stage almost non-stop, is an eye-popping dancer who can make her way through a grueling routine and then sing with breath to spare.

‘42nd STREET’
Highly recommended
When: Through March 20
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph
Tickets: $19 – $85
Info: (800) 775-2000; www.BroadwayInChicago.com
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission

You should see this show (which opened on Broadway in 1980, with a book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble based on the 1933 movie musical classic) for the dancing, and for its Follies-level design, and for its still captivating score by Harry Warren and Al Dubin that spins from one great song to the next, including “You’re Getting to be a Habit with Me,” “Dames,” “I Only Have Eyes for You,” “We’re in the Money,” “Lullaby of Broadway,” “Shuffle Off to Broadway,” and on and on.

Tapping up a storm in the national touring company production of "42nd Street," at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. (Photo:.......)

Tapping up a storm in the national touring company production of “42nd Street,” at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. (Photo: Chris Bannion)

If there is a problematic element in the production (which is cast with non-Equity actors), it is that for some reason co-author and director Bramble chose to make the acting of the “real-life” story in the show as exaggerated as that in “Pretty Lady,” the musical-within-the-musical at its center. As a result, the characters often feel like cartoons rather than real people, and the heart of the story gets lost.

That story — above all a love letter to the indomitable spirit of show business itself — is about Sawyer, a gifted young dancer from Pennsylvania who has just arrived in New York, quickly gets a coveted chorus job, and then suddenly finds herself tapped to become the last-minute replacement for Dorothy Brock (Kaitlin Lawrence), the over-the-hill star of genius director Julian Marsh (Matthew J. Taylor, whose powerful voice and Brando-like looks make up for over-acting). Marsh’s show, “Pretty Lady,” is a massive production that will give jobs to scores of people trapped in the midst of economic hard times. In other words, failure is not an option here.

Caitlin Ehlinger is Peggy Sawyer and Matthew J. Taylor is Julian Marsh in "42nd Street," at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. (Photo: Chris Bennion)

Caitlin Ehlinger is Peggy Sawyer and Matthew J. Taylor is Julian Marsh in “42nd Street,” at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. (Photo: Chris Bennion)

A number of supporting players stand out, including Lamont Brown (a fleet, bantam-weight master tapper who could easily play Sammy Davis, Jr., and who here plays the dance captain of “Pretty Lady”); Natalia Lepore Hagan (as Annie, the sassy, long-legged chorus girl who recognizes Peggy’s talent); and a trio of other chorus girls (played by Mallory Nolting, Vanessa Mitchell and Sarah Fagan).

The orchestra (under music director J. Michael Duff) does full justice to the score. And clearly no expense has been spared on the design front, with Beowulf Borritt’s evocative sets enhanced by Ken Billington’s lighting and the fabulously luxurious costumes of Roger Kirk.

But when all is said and done, it is the dancing that rules the day here. And for anyone who thinks tap is an art form of the past, “42nd Street” is a reminder that the beat of dancing feet cannot be beat. In fact, I fully expect enrollment in tap dance classes to skyrocket in Chicago during the next couple of weeks.