REVIEW: 42nd Street - Morgan-Wixson Theatre, Santa Monica
Updated: Aug 20, 2019
“…Sheer, Unadulterated Brilliance!”
Based on Bradford Ropes' novel and David Merrick’s classic Warner Brothers 1933 film by the same name, a downright sweeping edition of “42nd Street” is now electrifying audiences at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre in Santa Monica. Director Anne Gesling has worked a musical miracle by infusing the show’s unforgettable score by Harry Warren and Al Dubin with a seamless and perfectly heightened jazz vibe, a stage full of symmetrically tapping feet and a savvy rediscovery of a period piece. Now playing through December 15th, “42nd Street” is part of the theatre’s Youth Education & Entertainment Series and is the 23rd installment in its annual youth musical.
Musically directed by Daniel Koh, the Morgan-Wixson pulls out all the stops with this gorgeous, glittering production… “all while coordinating new seats for the theatre, upgrading electrical, and rebuilding the front of the stage…”and never missing a beat with familiar vintage songs, spectacular tap routines and amazing voices, including old favorites like, “We’re in the Money,” “Lullaby of Broadway” and the signature song, “42nd Street.”
This is a dance extravaganza with a company that has mastered every buck and wing, every tap and shuffle, every glide. Director Gesling, who also choreographed this production along with Lauren Blair, Josh Breslow, and Krystal Combs, assisted by Sophie Davidson and Sophie Golay, has molded this cast into a perfectly synchronized ensemble that provides dazzling geometric dance routines and the same kind of energy displayed by the original Hollywood hoofers of the 30’s. The precision and movements of these young tap-masters are nothing short of stunning, and gives credence to the likes of Busby Berkley and the Ziegfeld Follies.
Winner of the 1980 Tony Award for “Best New Musical” and the 2001 Tony Award for “Best Revival of a Musical,” “42nd Street,” with book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, is a show-within-a-show fantasy version of the Great White Way as seen through the prism of Broadway during the depression years, as well as an engaging tale of a small town girl’s rapid rise from chorus girl to Broadway Star. A deliciously charming musical which was light years ahead of its time back then, the show has practically invented every backstage musical cliché we know today.
Peggy Sawyer (Daisy Billington) is the wide-eyed innocent wannabe star fresh off the bus from Allentown, Pennsylvania. She’s in New York to follow her dreams at a time when money and employment were hard to come by. The plot follows a group of actors premiering their show “Pretty Lady,” which may be their last hope in surviving a bleak future. This desperation is personified in Peggy, trying not only to break into the tough new industry of show business but also trying to find her place in a very indifferent world. Fortunately for Peggy, she’s actually better than most of the girls already dancing, and in true storybook style, it’s not long before she’s hired. Billy Lawlor (Clayton Davis), already cast as one of the juvenile leads, notices her and hopes to charm her, exuding a tremendous amount of eager, boyish charm (“Young and Healthy”).
Legendary Broadway Director Julian Marsh (Quinn Snow Robinson), tells his jocular and always upbeat head writers Bert (Ethan Dale) and Maggie (Sofia Cohen) he’s worried about prima donna Dorothy Brock, the leading lady. Her last hit was ten years earlier, but her "sugar daddy," Texan Abner Dillon (Sebastian Hochman), is backing the new show financially. When Dorothy and Abner arrive, Dorothy assumes a diva posture and refuses to audition, but Julian pacifies her and assures her he’s just trying to determine if the song is in the right key (“Shadow Waltz”).
If you’ve seen the movie, you may be familiar with the rest. Dorothy (played astoundingly by 15-year old Milla Moretti, “The Hundred Dresses,” “A Winter’s Tale”) breaks an ankle and it’s young Peggy, the chorus girl, who gets fired for it, but eventually goes on in her place. “You’re going out there as a youngster,” declares Julian, “But you’ve got to come back a star!”
Ms. Billington possesses a delightfully gifted voice, fabulous footwork and a feisty, perky personality, which adds to the show, giving the role of Peggy Sawyer a hint of modern attitude in this Depression-era story.
A memorable number showcasing Dorothy’s mesmerizing vocals in Act 1 is “I Know Now,” performed directly after Billy Lawlor & Company’s infectious barn-burner, “Dames,” which is stand up and cheer quality. In the second half, Ms. Moretti’s Dorothy also delivers a wonderful standout duet with Peggy in “A Quarter to Nine.” Pat Denning (Alexander Homami), Dorothy's former vaudeville partner, all-around nice guy and romantic interest, keeps the audience guessing and has a featured part in the number “Getting Out of Town.”
Mr. Robinson is surprisingly both personable and paternal as Julian, the demanding producer and director, and he's countered perfectly by Peggy’s enchanting nature. Aside from his pleasing voice and gruff manner is his deep-down vulnerability, which may be one of his greatest qualities. After recognizing the show as a success, and that he might even be in love with her, everyone scurries off to celebration parties leaving Julian, alone and center-stage, in quiet thought singing the finale, ”Come and meet those dancing feet, On the avenue I'm taking you to Forty-Second Street…”
Among the outstanding supporting players, Andie Lee is played by Abby Geissler, the dance director in the show. Mac (Zelda Saltzman) is the stage manager. Peggy’s group of chorus girlfriends include Phyllis (Ruby Lapeyre), Lorraine (Sophie Davidson), Gladys (Thea Lawson), Diane Lorimer (Elise Ramacciotti), “Anytime” Annie (Sophie Golay), and Ethel (Rachel Nathan). The Waiter is Walden Sullivan and the Doctor is played by Sidd Wali. The Sailor is Spencer Williams, who is featured with some lovely dance moves in several of the numbers. The three Urchins (Luna Kup, Ethan Kuwata and Mimi Vizzi) have a transitional scene spotlighting them before the curtain rises on “We’re In The Money,” and suddenly quick-change from rags to radiant costumes, becoming the stars of that lavish revue.
Additional members of the stellar ensemble include Sara Finemel, Eadan Franklynn, Grace Holscher, Tess Hubbard, Hannah Israel, Gracie McFalls, Arielle Meisel, Monty Oxman, Lexie Palmer, Gianna Pira and Ella Wardin, and all are fabulous in the over-the-top dance numbers, "The Audition,” “Getting To Be a Habit,” “Sunny Side to Every Situation,” and “42nd Street Ballet.”
The show's technical duties are handled by William Wilday, which includes Lighting Design. Tom Brown’s Scenic Design utilizes the expansive stage to great effect, particularly with the many elaborate backdrops, set designs, the large coin platforms, and skillfully planned staircases, while clever quick-change and quick-set segues keep the story moving and compelling. An added stylized feature is the passenger train umbrellas.
Costumes and wigs, all magnificently opulent, are also designed by Anne Gesling; Sound is by Nicholas Vizzi. Stage Manager is Larry Gesling, who incidentally makes an appearance in the show, accompanied by Todd Kuwata, playing The Thugs. Props are managed by Tracy Saltzman, who, along with Miriam Billington also produces the show. Much credit is due to the unnamed multitude of technical experts behind the scenes as well, ensuring this production remains at the top of its game.
The ultimate show-biz musical, “42nd Street” is a triumph of Broadway, Times Square, and the people who make the magic of musical theatre at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre. Though the storyline is fanciful and perhaps unrealistic, its personality rings true and is filled with hope, romance and excitement! Perhaps more importantly, the spirited exuberance of the cast is genuine, oozing with talent, ensuring a good time for fans everywhere of the golden age of Broadway musicals.
There are five matinee performances left, playing weekends only through December 15th , with plenty of smiling faces to enjoy. For ticket information, please visit https://www.morgan-wixson.org/
National Youth Arts