The Harlequin Dinner Theatre has come up with a full-blown, no-taps-barred production of "42nd Street" that ought to satisfy even those who have already caught the musical in either its Broadway or touring incarnations.
Most musicals tend to undergo serious shrinkage when they take to the dinner theater circuit, but the Harlequin version, which features Patricia Pearce and local show business personality Johnny Holliday, will have you marveling at how much is up there on the stage.
The show abounds in youthful talent on a tear and deserves to rank alongside the Harlequin's "A Chorus Line," which set a high-water mark last year for dinner theater musicals. You don't get the splashy Broadway sets, perhaps, but designer James Bush has found inventive equivalents for Harlequin's relatively modest stage. Costumer Nanzi Adzima has certainly made no concessions in the wardrobe department. And choreographer Kathryn Kendall wrings every last ounce of energy from a dancing ensemble that seems to have been wearing tap shoes since birth.
Where the Harlequin fails to achieve the sense of Busby Berkeley profligacy that characterizes the still-running Broadway edition, it offers something in exchange: an intimacy between performer and spectator. When the performers are appealing as these, the trade-off is more than acceptable.
"42nd Street" recycles one more time the saga of the wide-eyed innocent from the sticks who stumbles into a Broadway audition, lands a berth in the chorus and then, when the leading lady fractures her ankle, takes over the part on 36 hours' notice and becomes a star. It's always been a sappy myth, but something about it appeals to the American psyche. (Why else do we buy lottery tickets, if not out of an abiding belief in overnight transformations?) Even as we're laughing at the show business cliche's in "42nd Street," part of us still wants to subscribe to them.
The score is peppered with Harry Warren/Al Dubin songs that helped keep America from succumbing to the Depression -- "You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me," "We're in the Money," "Lullaby of Broadway," "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" and the snazzy title number, which has held up far better over the years than the street it honors. Under John Mezzio's musical direction, they sound swell all over again.
Pearce plays leading lady Dorothy Brock with a forbidding glare and a tone somewhere between that of a czarina and a drill sergeant. Then, when you least expect it, she undercuts the temperament with a deft comic gesture, revealing the layers of ham under the hauteur.
Holliday, a familiar commercial spokesman on Washington television, takes his pitchman's image up several notches to become hard-bitten Julian Marsh, Broadway director. The piston-driven performance does a lot to keep an essentially frivolous show on track. In his eyes, the fate of "Pretty Lady," which happens to be the musical he's directing, is no less significant than the fate of the world.
Holliday's crustiness and Pearce's megalomania are neatly counterpointed by the disarming innocence of Andy Leech and Kelly Dawn Wilmoth. The jug-eared Leech plays the juvenile lead in "Pretty Lady" as if there weren't a cloud in the sky he couldn't banish with a smile. Wilmoth, as the chorus girl fated for stardom, makes an adorable babe in the Broadway woods. Early in the show, they pair up to sing "Young and Healthy," and they are so engaging together that you wonder what else they could possibly hope for.
The casting is, in fact, largely on target all down the line. Shrewd but warm-hearted Karlah Hamilton, wisecracking Carole Cianelli, fleet-footed Patrick Wetzel -- they've all got a bead on these 1930s show business archetypes, for whom giving their all is an unquestioned article of faith. (The audience for "Pretty Lady" is going to be paying $4.40 a seat, after all.) Director Joe Leonardo has neatly covered the corn with a patina of brass, which is just what's required.
"42nd Street" is an exercise in nostalgia, sure. But I think it's more than that. It's a celebration of a fundamental American optimism that, even in the Depression, wanted to believe in dreams and energy and "the million-to-1 shot that comes back a winner." Instead of throwing themselves off a bridge, these undaunted troupers throw themselves into a song.
42nd Street, book by Mark Bramble and Michael Stewart; music by Harry Warren; lyrics by Al Dubin. Directed by Joe Leonardo; musical direction, John Mezzio; choreography, Kathryn Kendall. Sets, James Bush; costumes, Nanzi Adzima; lighting, Brian MacDevitt. With Patricia Pearce, Johnny Holliday, Patrick Wetzel, Karlah Hamilton, Michael Carruthers, Carole Cianelli, Andy Leech, Kelly Dawn Wilmoth, Michael Shiles. At the Harlequin Dinner Theatre through Sept. 27.