In case you hadn’t heard, the ’80s are back. Already. In fashion, in politics and now on Broadway, where “42nd Street,” a very ’80s take on backstage pictures of the ’30s, is being revived in a gaudy, relentless production directed by Mark Bramble that pays determined tribute to the Gower Champion original in all its David Merrick-style opulence.
That production opened Aug. 26, 1980. Its place in Broadway history was assured when the producer took the stage after the first performance to announce, in a gesture that by itself might have won him the epithet Abominable Showman, that the show’s director-choreographer Champion had died that very day. The stunned cast burst into tears; reporters raced up the aisles; the show went on to run for more than 3,000 performances.
In retrospect, what was most notable about the production was not its resurrection of the cliches and conventions of old Broadway, as preserved in ’30s pictures and echoed in Merrick’s grandstanding gesture. More significantly, the show helped usher in a new era on Broadway in which spectacle and size, endless runs, big budgets and advance ticket sales would make headlines more often than artistic accomplishments. The mania for the megahit that swept the film business spread to Broadway — even if Broadway had to import most of its megahits of the decade from London. And while it was a new show, strictly speaking, “42nd Street” also pointed toward the era of the mega-revival that continues today.
Audiences at the Ford Center will not, of course, be pondering the show’s significance in Broadway history. From the moment the curtain goes up on a veritable forest of dancing gams, they’ll probably be delighted by the old-fashioned, lavish showmanship that shines from every last sequin of this glittering pinball machine of a musical. “42nd Street” seeks to slay the audience with its wow of an opening number, and keeps slaying us with mechanical regularity till curtain time some 2-1/2 hours later.
The musical is peopled not by characters but by showbiz archetypes: Dorothy Brock, the dragon-lady star ripe for a comeuppance, played with a delicious sense of style by Christine Ebersole, who also sings sensationally; the imperious director Julian Marsh (Michael Cumpsty, making the best of an ill-fitting role), who proffers hammy exhortations to the kids to go out there and knock ’em dead; the anonymous chorine — might as well call her the Ruby Keeler — who becomes an overnight star when the leading lady gets injured, a role danced sensationally and acted facelessly by Kate Levering.
Do we care about these folks? Not really; indeed, we can’t always pick them out amid the busy traffic of the show’s expensive, colorful sets by Douglas Schmidt (I somehow missed Billy Stritch, who’s listed in the program as playing one Oscar), lit alternately stylishly and clumsily by Paul Gallo. (Distracting shifts in the backstage scenes seem to suggest a chorus gypsy playing with the light board.) The thin characterizations are likewise overwhelmed by Roger Kirk’s splashy costumes.
The book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble still doesn’t quite seem to know if it wants to wink at the cardboard nature of the characters, and the dialogue is hoary beyond description: Before the curtain comes down Marsh has referred to Broadway as both a “glittering gulch” and “glorious gulch.” But most in the audiences have some kind of affection for the conceits and the cliches the characters embody, and that’s sufficient to keep us awake for the brief bursts of exposition between bouts of song and dance.
No problem staying awake during those, of course: The eyeballs are all but seared by the scorching heat of the big dance numbers. Champion’s choreography, here re-created by Randy Skinner, drew with immense style and erudition on various showbiz traditions, from the splashy regimentation of Busby Berkeley to the lush, ballet-influenced romanticism of MGM musicals of two decades later. His ingenuity and artistry still are exciting to see.
But in the Ford Center, a forbidding house that keeps the audience at a cool distance from the white-hot energies of the show’s best numbers, what you take away is mostly an impression of size and scope and athleticism rather than real charm. The theater also places the stars of the show at a disadvantage as they attempt to breathe some life into sketchily defined characters.
Succeeding best in this battle are Ebersole, a knockout comedienne, as noted, with powerful vocal chops, and the ever-energetic Mary Testa, more Merman-esque than ever as the show’s wisecracking songwriter Maggie Jones. Testa’s natural verve, machine-tooled timing and jazzy vocals give a much-needed taste of earthiness to the rote manipulations of the backstage story. As the leading tenor Billy Lawlor, David Elder is a bright, shiny presence and a remarkable athlete as he flips back and forth on a dime, literally, in “We’re in the Money.”
The Harry Warren-Al Dubin songs stitched into the musical are certainly a pleasure to hear, even if none is rendered with the wit and sensitivity that cabaret singer Mary Cleere Haran, for one, has discovered in them (Ebersole comes closest with a relatively delicate “I Only Have Eyes for You”). But subtlety and sensitivity are not the point here: “42nd Street” seduces its audiences with excess, and the new production certainly isn’t stingy in the excess department. One leaves with images of silver-spangled chorines burned onto the retinas, feeling positively pummeled by tap shoes.