If you happened to hear the beat of dancing feet on Sunday evening – or, more to the point, felt the volcanic vibrations of a thunderous cast of tappers – you should know that the sound emanated from Oakbrook’s Drury Lane Theatre. That is where a downright revolutionary edition of “42nd Street” is now electrifying audiences with its unforgettable score by Harry Warren and Al Dubin.
Yes, it is revolutionary, while at the same time just “vintage” enough to work that incomparable magic that made the 1933 film version of the story something of a Depression-era tonic and its 1980 Broadway stage version (with a book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble), a major hit. And who gets the credit here? I’ll start with the cast, which is simply sensational, and move on quickly to director Michael Heitzman, to choreographer Jared Grimes (whose marathon dance sequences rival the work of such contemporary tap masters as Savion Glover and Michelle Dorrance), and to music director Roberta Duchak, and the masterful onstage orchestra under conductor Chris Sargent.
But in the same breath there must be a huge “bravo” for music arranger Everett Bradley (a Grammy Award nominee who has worked with Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, Cyndi Lauper, Bobby McFerrin and more). Bradley has worked a musical miracle by infusing the show’s score with everything from a seamless but perfectly heightened jazz vibe to an electronic enhancement of tapping feet. And all this brilliantly moves the show into the 21st century in what is an uncannily savvy retrofitting of a period piece.
When: Through Jan. 7, 2018
Where: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission
The sense that something a bit unconventional is about to unfold in this production is palpable from the word go as Heitzman has replaced the usual music-only overture with a scene in which Julian Marsh (Gene Weygandt), the legendary Broadway director-producer who hopes to make a comeback with his big new show, “Pretty Lady,” can be seen imagining a sequence from that show. Then, as the lights come up on “reality,” the hopeful chorus dancers move through the opening number, “Audition,” under the watchful eye of choreographer Andy Lee (Erica Evans), and as newcomer Peggy Sawyer (Kimberly Immanuel), a shy but talented neophyte from Allentown, Pa., arrives late and meets Billy Lawlor (Phillip Attmore), the young tenor and lead dancer who instantly takes a shine to her.
A knockout opening tap number makes you wonder how Grimes and his dancers could possibly top themselves, but be advised, they do, as the saga of how Sawyer manages to become an overnight sensation unfolds, and she replaces veteran star Dorothy Brock (Suzzanne Douglas) with barely 24 hours’ notice.
Of course as all that unfolds, there is one dazzling number after another, with Brock – in tandem with “Pretty Lady” writer Maggie Jones (Donica Lynn) – singing “Shadow Waltz” in a way that has never sounded more jazzy and sultry; as Peggy, in league with her fellow dancers (Sierra Schnack, Mandy Modic, Annie Jo Ermel and Evans), furiously taps up a lunchtime storm in “Go Into Your Dance”; and the first act finale outdoes all expectations with “We’re In the Money,” in which bags of silver coins are poured into circular forms to enhance the percussive sound.
But there is much, much more, as the second act revels in show biz sentimentality (“Lullaby of Broadway”), and naughty on-the-road shenanigans (“Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” with a dancing conductor on a train roof, and hilarious antics behind sleeping car curtains), and a pounding, breathless finale set to the show’s rousing title song.
Immanuel is a fresh-faced beauty with bedazzling footwork, a lovely voice and astounding endurance. Weygandt’s savvy but always real portrayal of Marsh is hugely engaging. The luminous Attmore is a dancer of technical brilliance and panache who lights up the stage with his comical womanizing flair. Douglass has just the right hauteur and vocal distinction. The ever remarkable Lynn is full of sass and stunning vocal flair. But the real stars of “42nd Street” are the dancers (“the kids” as they’re called).
A “Lullaby of Broadway”? Far too tame. I’d call it a clarion wake-up call for Times Square.