Theatre review: 42nd Street – infectious enthusiasm only buys you so much

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When you think about it, 42nd Street is a pretty tricky piece of musical theatre to pull off.  Despite its rather corny premise, this musical-within-a-musical demands a cast that can belt out its famous tunes, have the tap skills to carry off the numerous dance numbers and a technically sound production worthy of Abner Dillon’s investment.  But while the mostly amateur team at Vancouver’s Metro Theatre doesn’t quite meet the mark on all three counts, I do admit to admiring the team for the infectious enthusiasm they brought to the stage.  To a point.

Aging diva Dorothy Brock (Susan Skemp) is the star power that big-wig producer Julian Marsh (Christopher King) thinks he needs to make his latest Broadway extravaganza a hit.  At a cost of $100,000 it might pale in comparison in terms of some of today’s blockbusters on the Great White Way (cough,Spiderman) but in 1933 that was a whole lot of money.   Enter Peggy Sawyer (Celia Reid), fresh off the bus from small town USA she is looking to get her break, and that is literally what she manifests as she sidelines Brock and is called upon to ultimately save the show.

Skemp and King are the only two professional actors amongst this cast of almost thirty and while that fact is definitely evident, it is perhaps surprising for opposite reasons: Skemp seemed to struggle with the music but perfectly captured the spoiled diva and King’s wonderful singing voice was overshadowed by a somewhat flat performance.

Among the non-professional actors on stage Cathy Wilmot and Peter Stainton as the writers of the fictional musical are definite highlights.  Wilmot captures the brash Maggie Jones and cements herself once again as one of this city’s finest character actors and Stainton matches her note-for-note in a zany characterization that is perfect for this role.

Reid as the fresh-off-the-bus Peggy does a decent job although she will need to learn to relax a bit more (I know it is tough opening night) to capture the sweet innocence the role demands and David Z Cohen as the other show’s leading man once again proves he is a man going places.

The cast of Metro Theatre's 42nd Street
Members of the cast of the Metro Theatre production of 42nd Street.  Photo by Bruce Campbell.

Given the reliance on the songs and dance to carry this particular show it is definitely musical director Peter Wenzek and choreographer Dawn Ewen that have the biggest challenges of the night.  So it was a little surprising that the evening’s biggest issues sit squarely on the shoulders of director Alison Schamberger: awkward set changes, questionable lighting, poor sound and not a few wooden performances.  I’m willing to forgive some of the rough dancing and singing knowing that this is mostly a non-professional cast, but I left scratching my head as to the overall vision and quality of the production.  On opening night someone argued that these “kinks” might get worked out as the run progresses but from my vantage point there are some fundamentals that will be tough to resolve.

At $32 for an adult ticket, the premium over the regular Metro ticket price is no doubt needed to help offset the costs of putting on a musical.  Unfortunately, as entertainment dollars become scarcer it is tough to justify that premium; infectious enthusiasm only buys you so much.

2 1/2 of 5 Stars 42nd Street

Book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble.  Lyrics by Al Dubin.  Music by Harry Warren. Directed by Alison Schamberger.  A Metro Theatre production.  On stage at the Metro Theate through April 30, 2011.

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