By Caldwell Titcomb
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been a sucker for tapdancing – whether the unsurpassed solo hoofing of the late Gregory Hines (1946-2003) or an entire stage of unison clickety-clacking. Tapdancing was a stage staple in the early twentieth century, but it faded to the periphery for some time. It eventually made a comeback, however, and enabled Hines to win a Tony in 1992 for his performance in “Jelly’s Last Jam.”
Much credit for bringing tap back into favor was the 1980 Broadway production of “42nd Street,” which won the Tony for best musical and went on to run for 3,486 performances. A revival in 2001 chalked up a new 1,524-performance run.
This work was the second stage musical to be adapted from a film (the first, “Gigi” was a 1974 flop) – in this case the 1933 movie of the same name, which catapulted Ruby Keeler to tapdancing stardom until her retirement eight years later.
The current production by Boston Conservatory students is most welcome indeed, under the helm of 1991 alumnus Michael Susko, who has over the years danced, choreographed and directed the work. He had the luck to learn the staging of the famous original director and choreographer Gower Champion, who died the very day of the Broadway opening.
The idea of adapting the film belonged to Michael Stewart, who with Mark Bramble wrote the book; and the score came from the pen of Harry Warren (1893-1981), with lyrics by Al Dubin. Warren was born into an Italian-American family as Salvatore Antonio Guaragna. Though small in stature, standing only five feet, he was tall in stature as a Hollywood composer, writing more than 700 songs for 56 films between 1933 and 1961 – and winning one of three Oscars for “Lullaby of Broadway” in “42nd Street.”
In the plot, a fading star, Dorothy Brock, breaks her ankle, which threatens to close the Philadelphia tryout of the musical “Pretty Lady.” The demanding director, Julian Marsh, is persuaded to let an untested player, Peggy Sawyer, step into the lead, and he addresses her with the celebrated line, “You’re going out there a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!” You can guess the outcome.
The show opens with an audition, in which the stage is full of tapdancing feet. More splendid tapdancing comes with “We’re in the Money” (with 19 persons dancing atop huge pseudo-coins in front of a shimmering silver curtain), the aforementioned “Lullaby of Broadway” in Act II, and the title song near the end. Tapdance fans, rejoice.
In the large cast of thirty, special praise is due Lindsey Larson as the haughty Dorothy, Riley Krull as the aspiring Peggy, Brennan Roach as the exasperated Julian, Steven Cardona as Billy Lawlor, the tenor lead, and Cory Stewart as Dorothy’s jealous sugar daddy Pat Denning (sporting a Texas hat).
Janie Howland and Jeff Adelberg provide imaginative sets and lighting, respectively. F. Wade Russo conducts the confident orchestra of nineteen, almost entirely made up of wind players.
The end of the show is quite daring. The concluding title song is written in the minor mode. And with the cast heading off to the opening-night party, the pooped Julian is left alone on stage to sing quietly, “Come and meet those dancing feet…”
This production is appropriately dedicated to the memory of Sue Ronson, who headed the Conservatory’s tap program from 1979 to 2001. Performances continue through Sunday, March 8.