The 2001 New York revival of “42nd Street,” now making its appearance at the Ahmanson, presents a fanciful Broadway world that never was, a world where actors magnanimously promote co-stars and leading ladies genuinely wish their rivals well. This fanciful quality is excessive, even for musical comedy, making it difficult to care about the dreams and collisions of the characters. What the show had, and still has in abundance, is tasty theatrical icing — a nonstop parade of Harry Warren/Al Dubin songs and clever, inventive choreography by original helmer Gower Champion and Randy Skinner.
Director Mark Bramble sets the tone immediately with a half-raised curtain revealing sleek legs that promise a “naughty, gaudy, bawdy” evening, and “Audition,” the kickoff number by Andy (Dexter Jones) and ensemble, is one of the production’s best. Central conflict involves putting on a show, “Pretty Lady,” directed by harsh, hypertense Julian (Patrick Ryan Sullivan), and the conversion of a starry-eyed Cinderella, Peggy (Catherine Wreford), from first-time chorus girl to overnight sensation.
Since Peggy’s route to glory is predictable and told without tension or surprise, it’s fortunate that Dorothy (Blair Ross), the show’s temperamental leading lady, is portrayed with verve and bitchy flair. Swathed in Roger Kirk’s sumptuous designs that suggest Erte art deco sculptures, she indulges in amusingly cutting confrontations with Julian. “Shadow Waltz,” which spotlights her comedically clumsy dance routine on a large screen, is a visual treat, and her rendering of “You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me” packs an old trouper’s punch and authority.
Doing Dick Powell’s role in the 1933 film, Robert Spring has an engagingly direct appeal, playing what show’s writer Maggie Jones (a spirited Patti Mariano) defines as “a tenor with bass ideas.” He displays “those dancing feet” nimbly on the uplifting “Dames” and “I Only Have Eyes for You.” The Lawlor character, sketchy enough in the movie, is even less defined here, and it’s only fitting, given his cipher status, that he doesn’t get the girl.
Making Julian the unexpected romantic lead is Michael Stewart and Bramble’s brightest inspiration. Under Patrick Sullivan’s high-powered hand, Julian becomes the one character in the story who convincingly changes and grows under pressure. At first there’s a battering sameness to his denigrating outbursts, but in the Broad Street Station sequence, he mingles roaring passion with a greasepaint authenticity on “Lullaby of Broadway.”
As Peggy Wreford lacks the idiosyncratic take-over qualities of a star, but she is a fine singer and superior tap dancer. She can’t redeem the absurdly hokey sequence when inexperienced newcomer Peggy initially turns down Julian’s offer to give her the starring role, but shines on the “42nd Street” finale and “With Plenty of Money and You.” She also holds her own in a climactic duet with Ross, “About a Quarter to Nine.”
Jones is such an arresting presence as Marsh’s assistant that you want much more of him. Alana Salvatore stands out as a sassy showgirl, cleanly stealing the “Go Into Your Dance” sequence.
Particularly inventive staging by Champion and Skinner includes “We’re in the Money,” which utilizes jumbo-sized dimes held by the actors, then employed as dancing platforms by an ensemble of tapping terpsichoreans. Also striking, and an ideal evocation of the period, is a routine featuring girls in flesh-colored, bejeweled leotards, who lie on the floor as the mirrored backdrop descends and highlights their arms and legs in Busby Berkeley patterns.
Every number benefits from Peter Fitzgerald’s clear, vigorous sound, which keeps the perfectly synchronized tap steps front and center.