Ephie Aardema is a starry-eyed Peggy Sawyer to Tyler Hanes' Billy Lawlor in Pittsburgh CLO's "42nd Street."
By Sharon Eberson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
You know what you are in for as soon as the curtain rises just enough to reveal the dancing legs -- and nothing more -- of tapping dancers filling the Benedum Center stage. "42nd Street" is back, and with good reason.
The show that had its start in the 1930s remains surprisingly saucy as a Depression-era forerunner of "A Chorus Line." Both musicals owe much of their enduring popularity to audiences' fascination with what it takes to put on a Broadway show and the aspirational kids and cynical veterans who put the "big" in big numbers.
Where: Pittsburgh CLO at the Benedum Center, Downtown.
When: 8 p.m. today through Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: $10-$65; pittsburghCLO.org or 412-456-6666.
Pittsburgh CLO revives "42nd Street" for the fifth time in 67 seasons, and it does it up just right with a cast that backs up its many Broadway credits, Tom Helms and the CLO Orchestra giving full-bodied support to the Harry Warren melodies and that game chorus of hard-working kids who make summer in Pittsburgh musical theater so much fun.
The marquee name on the CLO production is Joey Fatone, the former N'Sync member and "Dancing With the Stars" contestant who was here in the 2010 production of "The Producers." He plays a bit part, though, as the co-writer of "Pretty Lady" with Charis Leos as his partner Maggie, making a welcome CLO debut. He shares a cute duet on "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" with Mara Newbery's Anytime Annie, but he's mostly in the background passing through scenes.
Sweet-natured, naive Peggy Sawyer, fresh off the bus from Allentown, Pa., drives the action all around her. She stumbles into the chorus auditions for a new musical and rises to stardom against all odds -- a fading star and a tyrannical director among the stumbling blocks. Ephie Aardema plays her with guileless charm and energetic tapping. As Dorothy Brock, the star who brings a troubled love life and the show's funding with her, statuesque Luba Mason wears '30s glam well and is particularly impressive on torchy songs such as "I Only Have Eyes for You."
The ladies fuel the story, but in this production directed by Charles Repole and choreographed by Michael Lichtefeld, it's the guys who make it soar.
Peggy is cajoled, rejected and seduced by Patrick Ryan Sullivan's Julian Marsh, a bully who needs a hit not just for his career and reputation, but to remind him why he believes that "musical comedy" are the two greatest words in the English language. He doesn't get to show off his vocals until late in the second act -- before that, he defers to Tyler Hanes, who obliges with a dazzling smile and a pleasant voice and, with his dance movies, earns the right to the strutting role of Billy Lawlor. The number "Dames" may be about the fine-looking ladies audiences come to see in a musical, but the ovation belongs to Mr. Hanes, backed by the ensemble in one of the show's best numbers.
And then there's Gavan Pamer as dance captain Andy. It seems unfair to call him reliable, which he certainly is after more than a dozen CLO shows, when he makes even the most difficult steps and complex tapping routines flow with ease.
Broadway first embraced "42nd Street" in 1980, when it followed an early 1930s novel and movie, and the idea of a job vs. the breadline was fresh in the minds of potential ticket buyers -- we're reminded that they are spending a fortune to see "Pretty Lady," $4.40 a ticket. With catchy songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, including the title song and "We're in the Money," a book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, and legendary dancer Gower Champion as director and choreographer, the show won best musical and best choreography Tonys.
"42nd Street" is a perfect vehicle for Pittsburgh CLO to show off its young ensemble, a place that kick-started a few careers, including some names and faces that will be conjured at the Tony Awards on Sunday. You can just imagine what's going through their minds when Julian Marsh tells Peggy, "You're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!"