From brassy overture to spectacular finale, "42nd Street" has it all. An immemorial backstage plot about sudden stardom. A 1930s ambiance and lingo that give nostalgia a new lease on life.
A score of Harry Warren and Al Dubin songs like they don't write them any more.
And a comically sentimental libretto that retains cherished lines and situations from the 1933 Warner Brothers classic starring Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, and Ginger Rogers.
The boundingly energetic, vital, and infectious production was directed and choreographed by the late Gower Champion (whose untimely passing occurred on the day of the Broadway opening)
They are calling the new version of the Bradford Ropes novel "the song and dance fable of Broadway." Fabulous it is, this tale of stage-struck Peggy Sawyer from Allentown, Pa., who comes to the big city to break into show business. Hired as a chorus hoofer, pretty Peggy is catapulted to stardom when she replaces a suddenly incapacitated leading lady. The rest is fairy-tale history.
"42nd Street" opens with a stage full of dancers tap-tap-tapping their hearts out. The music and Mr. Champion's masterful choreographic use of it are the heart of this wonderful entertainment. There are a silhouette shadow dance, a fling at Greco art deco, and one of those floral numbers in which the ladies of the ensemble wield posied hoops.
But the tap routines are the crowd pleasers -- whether on small dimelike platforms for "WE're in the Money" or on the wide open stage for spectaculars like the title song and "Lullaby of Broadway."
The action progresses amid the visual splendors and gadgets of Robin Wagner's scenery with its mirrors, turntables, and spiral staircases. There is a whole extravaganza of Theoni V. Aldredge costumes. Tharon Musser bathes all in cunning illumination. Hokum never had it more lavish or looked any handsomer.
The players respond with a captivating relish that carries all before them. The Playbill describes the sketchy book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble as "leadins and crossovers," which may sound a trifle arch until one stops to consider that some of the numbers (like "Shuffle Off to Buffalo") have no discernible relation to the play or to the play-within-a-play. They're simply there because they're there. But no matter, they are all part of the fun and games that make "42nd Street" not only a boisterous entertainment but a kind of Champion retrospective.
Apart from its elan and highly organized high spirits, perhaps the most conspicuous virtue of the performance is its make-believe intensity. From the hard-driving authority of Jerry Orbach's Broadway-wise director to the zest and enthusiasm of the singers and dancers, the Winter Garden cast picks you up and carries you unresisting through the romantic improbabilities of this star-spangled fiction.
Tammy Grimes plays and sings the nasty- to-nice prima donna with a fine blend of temperamental bravura and high comedy style. Miss Grimes can punctuate a comic line with the flick of a wrist or the tilt of a profile (a la Bea Lillie). Her solid vocalism enriches the musical pleasures of the evening. Wanda Richert's skills as singer and dancer are ideally suited to the spunky Allentown hopeful who gives naivete a good name and adorns a Broadway legend. She is attractively partnered and abetted by Lee Roy Reams as the show's inevitably breezy tenor and juvenile.
Danny Carroll, Carole Cook, and Joseph Bova are among the principals who make "42nd Street," with its syncopated "Lullaby of Broadway," one of the happiest songs on the Great White Way.
Applause and repeated ovations greeted the premiere at the Winter Garden Theater as first nighters welcomed an array of familiar tunes in their spandy new framework. The audience fell silent only when producer David Merrick interrupted the final curtain calls to inform the stunned cast and spectators of Mr. Champion's demise a few hours before the opening.
As his last stage work, this marvelously talented veteran added an ebullient contribution to the unique American musical-comedy tradition -- in his case a legacy which has included "Lend an Ear," "Bye bye birdie," "Carnival," "Hello, Dolly!" "I do!" "I do!" "The Happy Time," "Sugar," "Irene," and "Mack and mabel, " all of which he choreographed and directed.