Payoffs are gigantic in the Bucks County Playhouse production of “42nd Street.” That’s because when director Hunter Foster and choreographer Jeremy Dumont have a big number to mount, they are in their theatrical glory.
For example “The Lullaby of Broadway” unleashes waves of energy as each new chorus of Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s famous song finds a different cast member leading a cadre of others to the scene, building and building until it soars to ecstatic heights and you wonder if the small Playhouse stage can hold it.
If “Lullaby” excites, the title number and finale, “42nd Street,” is even better. It’s also braver with Dumont improvising more than in “Lullaby,” which seems derivative of Gower Champion’s conception for the original 1980 Broadway production.
These choreographic wallops, presaged by “We’re in the Money,” smaller lollapaloozas, and so much enthusiastic tapping you’ll think you’re at a woodpeckers’ convention, provide liveliness, zest, and creativity that more than compensate for the weaker book portions of the production.
It isn’t Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble’s book that’s weak, but an easygoing approach to their bountiful material. Foster and Dumont have made BCP’s “42nd Street” primarily a dance show. Bless them for it. They do hoofing proud.
But “42nd Street” is a total package and has a story, one that has become archetypical and that the show’s 1933 film version helped to create. You know it, the anonymous chorus member forced to become a show’s lead player. It’s summed up in the line, “You’re going out there a chorus girl, but you’re coming back a star!”
Foster’s cast doesn’t exactly slouch in their book scenes. More exactly they never find a tone for them. They get the story across, but they give it no texture or overdo it.
The overdoing is the rub. “42nd Street” is a show biz tale written first in the 1930s for a movie. It contains a lot of wisecracking of the “been around the block” and “knows the score” variety. This street-smart sophistication is contrasted with the “green from the sticks” — in this case Allentown, Pennsylvania — sensibility of a newcomer to Broadway, Peggy Sawyer.
The characters in “42nd Street” know they can be funny and reel off cutting taunts and sharp remarks. In terms of staging “42nd Street,” this means gag lines should emanate without a character giving any thought to his or her humor.
On opening night I had the sense too many lines were being exaggerated or pushed instead of letting an inherent joke, natural to the character, just play. Lines seemed delivered instead of said in a character’s voice. This made the savvy seem naive and a genuine setting seem forced. All played too broadly and directly.
Some players overcame the sense that lines were to be breezed through or forced. Monette McKay found the right combination of ease and bite as Anytime Annie. Patrick Oliver Jones gave dimension and a measure of seriousness to Pat Denning. Kilty Reidy knew his business as songwriter Bert Barry. Cliff Bemis made the often thrown away Abner Dillon into someone worth watching. And Matt Bauman was perfect in any mood, attitude, or action he had to play.
All of the major characters did fine. But they tended to rise to occasions. Matt Walton, as the director and Broadway legend Julian Marsh, made late scenes, in which he is coaching Peggy Sawyer to stardom, rich in a way that showed mettle that wasn’t visible in earlier scenes. Ruth Gottschall roaring through moments in “Lullaby of Broadway” and “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” made use of stage size that was too large in other sequences.
Blakely Staybaugh, as youth lead Billy Lawlor, came into his own with seismic dance moves that gave tapping extra excitement. Like Walton and Gottschall, Linda Balgord as diva Dorothy Brock finds her best stride near the end of the show, when Dorothy, a seasoned pro, demonstrates to neophyte Sawyer how to add subtlety and class to a song, “About a Quarter to Nine.”
Tessa Grady, as Sawyer, shows star quality from the beginning and maintains it throughout it. She comes from the blue, stakes her claim to our attention, then dazzles us to the point we cheer for her as if she were the challenged and triumphant Sawyer, allegedly pushing her talent to unexpected limits and winning the day.
The good — heck, the brilliant — outweighs any negatives about Foster’s production.
My impression is the book scenes and the acting of them will settle into something more consistent with the dance numbers as “42nd Street” enjoys its unusually long run, through August 4, at Bucks County Playhouse.
Meanwhile there are those dance numbers, each one a gem.
Keep your eye on that dance troupe. Staybaugh is a knockout the minute he gets to display his tap repertory. In the chorus, you can’t help but notice the talent of Joshua Keen, Alyssa Gardner, and others. Bauman can kick off numbers with aplomb.
Reliable Anna Louizos does a wonderful job defining multiple settings, and Kirk Bookman’s lighting captures a lot of the glitz and glitter.
Tapping, tapping, and more tapping make up for any lapses anywhere. It’s grand, grand, grand.
42nd Street, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope, Pennsylvania. Through Saturday, August 4. $40 to $80. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org