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42nd Street
Music by Harry Warren, Lyrics by Al Dubin
Book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble
Directed and Choreographed by Denis Jones
The Muny
June 24, 2016

Cast of 42nd Street Photo: The Muny

Cast of 42nd Street
Photo: The Muny

 “You may be going out there a youngster, but you’ve gotta come back a star!”  Those are the words Broadway director Julian Marsh (Shuler Hensley) says to Peggy Sawyer (Jonalyn Saxer), exemplifying the dreams of many a hopeful young performer with aims of a dazzling career in show business. Those starry aspirations are at the heart of the latest production on stage at the Muny, the big and glitzy valentine to 1930’s Broadway, 42nd Street. This show isn’t about realism, but glamour and the fantasy of stardom, highlighted by a great cast and some truly spectacular dancing.

It’s New York City in the early 1930’s, and a host of young, talented hopefuls are excited to audition for famous director Julian Marsh’s newest show. Among those performers is Peggy Sawyer, who is fresh off the train from Allentown, PA and who has dreams of some day being a star.  At first, though, she’s not off to a great start. Despite showing off a good voice and great dancing skills, she arrives too late and misses the audition. But Peggy has caught the eye of the show’s leading man, Billy Lawlor (Jay Armstrong Johnson) and eventually one of its writers, Maggie Jones (Ann Harada) and she gets a part in the chorus. Of course, the show already has a leading lady, somewhat jaded star Dorothy Brock (Emily Skinner), who’s got a great voice but isn’t much of a dancer, and she’s not particularly fond of Peggy at first. There are a lot of twists and turns in this plot, and most of them are predictable, but that hardly matters in an upbeat, incredibly entertaining show like this that’s all about hopes, dreams, showbiz, and lots and lots of dancing. It’s a tribute to the big glamorous musicals of the 1920’s and 30’s, with a lot of energy, classic songs, and a good amount of humor and heart.

The production values are top-notch, with a colorful, versatile set by Michael Schweikart and wonderfully whimsical costumes by Andrea Lauer. The big production numbers like “We’re In the Money” and “Lullabye of Broadway” look great, featuring director Denis Jones’s spectacular choreography that showcases a lot of intricately executed tap dancing. The style, look, and sound of the 1930’s movie musicals is there, with great sound by John Shivers and David Patridge, and superb lighting by Rob Denton.

In addition to that wonderful dancing ensemble, the leads are ideally cast as well. Saxer dances joyfully and has a great voice as the perky, optimistic Peggy, and Johnson is charming and an equally strong dancer as Billy. Hensley as Marsh projects a believable air of kindness that informs his otherwise authoritative character. Skinner is also great as the talented but insecure Dorothy Brock, and there are some fun comedic performances by Harada as Maggie and Jason Kravitz as comedian/writer Bert Barry.

42nd Street is a show that idealizes show business and is characterized by an underlying sense of hope, even in difficult times. The sense of drive and purpose displayed by its characters is enthusiastic and infectious, and the dance numbers are not to be missed. This is a spectacular in the best sense of that term. It’s a an ideal show for a venue with a reputation for big stylish musicals. This show is the Muny at its best.

Cast of 42nd Street Photo: The Muny

Cast of 42nd Street
Photo: The Muny

42nd Street at the Muny runs until June 30, 2016.

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Hello, Dolly!
Book by Michael Stewart
Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Choreographed by Ralph Perkins
The Muny
August 11, 2014

Beth Leavel (center) and Ensemble Photo by Phillip Hamer The Muny

Beth Leavel (center) and Ensemble
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

Hello Dolly! and the Muny are a match made in Theatre Heaven. As is fitting for a show about a matchmaker, the two parties in this particular relationship are most ideally suited. Hello Dolly! when staged well, is a big, colorful, flashy show with lots of energy and heart, and the Muny has built its reputation around just this type of show.  After an especially impressive season that started with a wonderful production of a newer show, Billy Elliot, the Muny is closing out their 2014 schedule with this big, brassy charmer of a Broadway classic, scaled just right to fit the colossal stage and delight the eyes, ears and hearts  of the vast Muny audience.

I’ve seen quite a few productions of this show over the years, including the last (also excellent) Muny production in 2007 that featured a more subdued portrayal of the title character. This time, though, Dolly Gallagher Levi, as played by Beth Leavel, is back to her larger-than-life ways, and is the real center of this production.  Leavel’s Dolly is such a presence that even when she’s off stage, her influence is obvious. With a big personality, a strong voice and lots of quirky style, Leavel commands the stage.  She is well-matched with John O’Hurley as the curmudgeonly half-millionaire Horace Vandergelder, on whom the widowed Dolly sets her sights. Telling the story of Dolly’s various matchmaking efforts and their effects on Horace and those around him, this production has all the elements this show requires and then some, with big, flashy production numbers, strong choreography by Ralph Perkins, colorful period-specific costumes by Amy Clark, and a simple but striking set designed by Michael Schweikart that features some wonderfully detailed backdrops.  It’s a valentine to late 19th Century New York, with infectious energy and memorable production numbers from the iconic title song to the big, stage-filling “Put On Your Sunday Clothes”, and more.

In addition to the ideal casting of Leavel and O’Hurley, the supporting players also turn in excellent work. Muny veteran Rob McClure, so memorable as Gomez in The Addams Family and Bert in Mary Poppins, is in fine form here as Horace’s sheltered chief clerk Cornelius Hackl, who is eager to get at least one small break from his humdrum Yonkers existence and experience adventure in the big city. McClure is able to be charming, bumbling, a nimble dancer, and a hopeless romantic all at once, with great renditions of the rousing “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” and the heartwarming “It Only Takes a Moment”.  He’s paired well with Mamie Parris as the widowed hatmaker Irene Molloy, who displays strong chemistry with McClure and an impressive voice on her showcase song, “Ribbons Down My Back”.  Jay Armstrong Johnson as the naive assistant clerk Barnaby Tucker, and Eloise Kropp as Irene’s shop assistant Minnie Fay deliver memorable comic performances, as well, as do Daniel Berryman as artist and would-be dancer Ambrose Kemper and Berklea Going as the object of his affection, Horace’s weepy neice, Ermengarde.  This production can also boast of a very impressive ensemble, especially the men who get to show off their athletic dancing skills in the wildly energetic “Waiters’ Gallop” number.

Although there were a few issues with the sound on opening night, as well as one noticeable (but well-covered) line flub, this production is otherwise staged with remarkable precision and timing.  The famous staircase scene is timed just right, and Leavel is adept at interacting with both the ensemble and the audience, generating waves of enthusiastic applause.  The Act One ending “Before the Parade Passes By” also puts the giant Muny stage to excellent use, featuring a memorable appearance by the O”Fallon Township High School marching band.  And speaking of bands, the Muny’s own wonderful orchestra–conducted by Musical Director James Moore–is in top form here as well, keeping up the energy and pacing of this classic Jerry Herman score.

This rendition  of Hello Dolly! is the latest piece of evidence that the Muny–under the leadership of Executive Producer Mike Isaacson–is back on form as befits its illustrious reputation.  This has been another entertaining season, and I’m looking forward to seeing what’s on offer next summer.  Echoing this show’s title song, I’ll say another enthusiastic hello to the new, improved Muny–it’s nice to have it back where it belongs, at the top of its game. Long may this revitalized tradition continue!

Eloise Kropp, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Mamie Parris, Rob McClure Photo by Phillip Hamer The Muny

Eloise Kropp, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Mamie Parris, Rob McClure
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

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