by Kevin Shaw | photos courtesy of Theatre Memphis
Growing up, I loved playing baseball. Starting in about 1974, I relished summer Saturday mornings going out to the ball field and participating in Joy League games (that was the name of the league) in Birmingham, AL. For each age group, there were only four teams—the Sox, Bucs, Yanks and Cardinals. From the ages of 7 to 14, I was always a member of the Sox (so was my brother) and hated any other member of any other team. I played 3rd base mostly and was a solid (not great or terrible), contributing member of the team. I can’t tell you how devastating it was to sometimes wake up early on a Saturday morning and receive the news that the game had been rained out—it ruined my whole weekend. It was that important to me and I loved every minute of it. I adored playing baseball. Today, ask me to watch a baseball game (in person or on tv) and I’d rather endure a root canal/Brazilian wax simultaneously.
Fast forward to 1987. I was fortunate enough to be cast in Birmingham’s summer stock season in which we would rehearse and perform three major musicals in the span of seven weeks. The venue held almost 2,000 people and there was enough room for half of them to eat dinner while watching the show. Lots of people wanted to get in, but very few made it. Receiving the news that I had been cast in the season still stands out as one of the greatest moments of my life. Just before that summer season began, we received news that our producer had somehow managed to get the rights to perform 42nd Street even though it was still running on Broadway and no professional company outside of New York had done it yet—we would be the first. The news was beyond exciting! The realization that I had never tap danced a lick in my entire life? Not so exciting. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I didn’t have the option of saying, “Thanks but I’ll just sit this show out rather than embarrass myself.” Just like Peggy Sawyer, we all had to learn the show in a shockingly short amount of time or else go down as dismal failures. The Broadway show sent their current dance captain (Debbie Draper) down to Birmingham to direct/choreograph the entire show in about seven days so that she could get quickly get back to New York. Seven days. It was daunting. The other few guys who were also not “tappers” and I spent countless hours in the communal bathroom at night (because the tap sounds were much cleaner on the tile floor) trying to perfect a time step, then a double time step, then a pull-back, then a…did I mention it was daunting? Simultaneously, as 20 year-olds are apt to do, we’d also drink alcohol while “bathroom tapping” until eventually passing out in an exhausted, drunken stupor at 6 a.m. or so and then be back at rehearsal just four hours later. To this day, I challenge anyone to endure a more painful experience than “picking ‘em up and putting ‘em down” in unison with 30 other people on a hard, wooden floor with a devastating hangover. It was awful and wonderful all at the same time.
Performing in 42nd Street was electric! Even though it’s been 30 years, I still remember the opening number choreography like it was yesterday. The entire experience was perhaps the most fun I’ve ever had performing in a show. You thought the action on stage was entertaining? You can’t even imagine how exciting things were backstage! The multitudes of costume and scenery changes were the textbook definition of “choreographed chaos!” So many costumes were strewn about that walking around backstage at an intermission was like walking through Hiroshima after the dropping of the atomic bomb. But. So. Much. Fun!
When I learned Theatre Memphis had put this show on their 2017-2018 season, I was super charged to experience the magic all over again. But… have I told you my growing up playing baseball story? Like baseball, the experience of participating in 42nd Street was pure perfection; the experience of watching 42nd Street? Meh.
Just like in tap dancing, Theatre Memphis has been “picking ‘em up” extremely high lately when it comes to recent productions. Shrek the Musical, The Drowsy Chaperone and Falsettos have all been of the highest caliber, but, also like tap dancing, what goes up, has to eventually come down again, hence 42nd Street and the previous TM mainstage production of August: Osage County. It’s almost unfair to a community theatre to put such high expectations on them, but they asked for it. They spoiled us. At any other time, in any other community theatre, 42nd Street would be considered a resounding success for a community theatre and, let me be clear, 42nd Street isn’t bad, it just can’t come close to TM’s other musicals this season. I know how big this show is and just how much work and love went into creating it, but I’m just not sure audiences will enjoy watching it as much as performers will enjoy performing it.
42nd Street in its essence is a jukebox musical, but with songs from the 1930’s. The original Broadway production won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1980, and did it again in 2001 for Best Broadway Revival. With familiar songs such as “42nd Street,” “We’re in the Money,” and “Lullaby of Broadway,” the show offers great nostalgia for those who grew up listening to such music and for those of us who have heard it all our lives. Also, like most jukebox musicals, this story also has a familiar, but weak plotline in “chorus girl steps up to play the lead role at the last minute to save the day.” In order to be massively entertaining, this show has two options: Either quickly get to the next familiar song with the glorious choreography OR if you are going to take the time to focus on the “book” of this musical, at least make it “1930’s authentic.” Turn on ANY 1930’s black and white movie and you’ll see a common style in its character’s vocal delivery. The characters ALL talk quickly and crisply in an almost crescendoing manner (see James Cagney/Bette Davis). There’s a sense of urgency in every character and story being told. Likewise, 42nd Street’s story about a chorus girl having to save the show at the last minute fits the mold nicely. If the actors miss the right style of delivery, the audience will miss the nostalgia of it all. It won’t ring true.
Director Ann Marie Hall has gathered almost all of the right personnel to pull this show off: Great choreographer in Christi Hall? Check. Great leading lady in Gia Welch? Check. A great ensemble of wonderful tap dancers? Check. That’s a lot of things going right in this production, however, not enough to pull it all off. As the female ingénue, Peggy Sawyer, Gia Welch is hands down the best singer, dancer, actress in Memphis right now—male or female. She’s always impressed, but who knew she was a tap-dancing fiend? I’m convinced there isn’t anything she can’t do and Memphis is lucky to have her as long as she’s willing to grace our stages. Christi Hall pulls double-duty as real-life choreographer and in-the-show choreographer, Andi Lee. She definitely gets the most out of her tappers and you’ll be whispering to yourself, “who knew Memphis had so many amazing hoofers?” Similar to past TM productions, this ensemble gives it their all and impresses from start to finish. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast doesn’t quite measure up (in age or performance). Lee Gilliland does his best to project the strong, powerful and towering director, Julian Marsh, but misses the mark in stature and conviction. (When he tells Peggy Sawyer at the 11th hour that everyone’s dreams and careers rest on her shoulders, it’s not supposed to garner giggles from the audience. Yes, it’s an overwhelmingly impossible admonition to place on a young, chorus girl minutes before going on stage, but that’s where that 1930’s style of “urgency” would allow the audience to maintain its suspension of disbelief). As the aging starlet, Dorothy Brock, Caroline Simpson has the acting and vocal chops to play the part, just not the age. Simpson looks young enough to be Brock’s granddaughter which distracts from the plot and lends the portrayal to be more akin to a high school production. Jason McCloud as the “star within the show,” Billy Lawlor is a fine singer/dancer but lacks the charisma needed to be captivating. Only Mary Buchignani as the co-writer and producer of the play-within-the-play nails it stylistically in her role as Maggie Jones. Buchignani seems to be the lone performer one who knows the show is set in 1933 and the vocal cadence and inflections required of the time. The rest of the cast would do well to copy her perfect vocal delivery and essence fast!
Jack Yates (TM’s resident scenic designer) takes a break from designing for this show, choosing instead to be a tap dancing member of the ensemble and leaving the design to Dave Nofsinger–a scenic design that simply doesn’t live up to previous productions and, at times, is a bit questionable (A proscenium arch consisting of a solid block of transitioning colored lights is neat to look at, but doesn’t recall 1930’s design in any way). Similarly, I guess it’s possible that performers were wearing brightly colored bow ties with sequins in the 1930’s, but I doubt it, which detracts from Costume Designer Amie Eoff’s otherwise, impressive creations. Jeremy Allen Fisher’s lighting design was a notch above other recent productions and Gary Beard’s orchestra was fine, but not quite as impressive as Jeff Brewer’s TM orchestras of late.
In the end, 42nd Street is a solid, community theatre production. It’s a show full of heart, energy and talent. There’s no doubt putting this show on has been a labor of love for all involved. It may not be the best thing on Theatre Memphis’ stage this season, but that’s not an insult, it’s just unfortunate timing in a season full of stratospheric smashes. If you want to see wonderful tap dancing and an even more amazing talent in its star, Gia Welch, go see 42nd Street. If you want to have an even better time, though, you might want to wait for the next audition.