Leave it to director Michael Brindisi to breathe new life into an old chestnut like 42nd Street. He treats this quintessential show biz musical like it’s real drama and ends up giving it a dark core, reminiscent of the 1933 movie on which it’s based, which was itself keenly reflective of the despair of the Depression.
The show follows the plot of the movie. Director Julian Marsh has been wiped out by the Stock Market Crash and is desperate that the new musical he’s mounting be a success to restore his fortunes. When his star, Dorothy Brock, breaks her ankle, it looks like the jig is up, until neophyte chorus girl, Peggy Sawyer, steps in and saves the day.
The book of the stage version, which premiered on Broadway in 1980, is amazingly sharp and smart, full of wit and more than its share of bitchy dialogue. It pokes gentle fun at the genre while still celebrating every cliché.
Brindisi’s clever staging expands on that premise, managing to be both satire and homage at the same time. That is an incredibly difficult line to walk, but Brindisi’s version does it expertly and, as a result, he creates a show that is both sardonic and full off heart, hilariously funny and genuinely moving.
It’s not hard to see Marsh, the aging director in search of a hit, as a stand-in for Brindisi himself. This is clearly very personal for him. Through Marsh, Brindisi focuses the silly show on the struggle of the artist, the act of creativity that gets the show up by sheer force of will. And this is reflected in David Anthony Brinkley’s performance. He played Marsh twelve years ago in Chanhassen’s last staging, but this time he creates a far richer character, darker and more wretched, who seems to unravel under the pressure. His rendition of “Lullaby of Broadway” has a palpable, inspiring passion.
Michelle Barber's Brock has that same passion and even a greater degree of humanity. She is every inch the bitchy temperamental diva, but as the character who really transforms over the course of the evening, she adds an emotional depth to the proceedings and carries much of the show. She demonstrated her acting chops earlier this year in Pen at the Guthrie, and they are on display here as well. She also gives a master class in how to belt out a ballad.
As Peggy Sawyer, Jodi Carmeli proves that she is anything but a neophyte, especially in her performance of the title song, which she makes into a real star turn. She is a diva in the making herself. Earlier, she manages to make the character’s innocence fresh, fully embracing the sentimentality of the role without ever becoming cloying.
It’s hard to imagine a stronger dancing chorus anywhere in the country, even on 42nd Street. And choreographer Tamara Kangas puts them through their paces. From the first curtain, she challenges them with dances that are at once appropriately familiar and yet full of surprises. Her inventiveness keeps the eye captivated at every turn.
The show also demonstrates an amazing depth of talent in its strong supporting cast, which is full of Chanhassen regulars. Tony Vierling is charming as the juvenile, both in his spectacular dancing and in his ability to invest the implausible love story with real believability.
It’s up to Janet Hayes-Trow and Jay Albright, as the second bananas, the married writers of the show, to add an extra level of jocularity. Their performances in “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” are priceless. No one can mug or do the sad-sack shtick better than Albright. And Hayes-Trow’s wisecracking, tough-as-nails dame is a perfect foil.
Nayna Ramey’s set is not one of her more successful efforts. It is functional and efficient, but not particularly eye-catching. But it does provide an effective canvas for Sue Ellen Berger’s dazzling lighting effects. The pride of place for design elements, however, goes to Rich Hamson’s stunning costumes, particularly the flower gowns he creates for a faux-Ziegfeld Follies number.
This is not your grandfather’s 42nd Street. It’s as silly as any old-fashioned musical should be, and yet carries with it an extra level of seriousness that leavens the foolishness and turns this into a very special celebration of the theatre.
42nd Street continues at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres through July 26.