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Tapping and singing toward heaven

By Charlene Baldridge | Theater Review

The 1980 Broadway musical “42nd Street” is set in 1933, near the end of the Great Depression. Legendary, ill-tempered director Julian March (Robert J. Townsend in San Diego Musical Theatre’s production) has just held New York auditions for “Pretty Lady,” the musical he knows will lift the nation’s spirits.

Scenes from “42nd Street,” presented by San Diego Musical Theatre at Spreckels Theatre (Courtesy of SDMT)

Scenes from “42nd Street,” presented by San Diego Musical Theatre at Spreckels Theatre (Courtesy of SDMT)

3Peggy Sawyer (Ashley Ruth Jones), a hopeful talent from Allentown, Pennsylvania, who wants to join the chorus line, just missed the auditions. She screwed up enough courage to stand at the stage door, but not enough to walk through it.

The show’s romantic lead, Billy Lawlor (lovely singer/dancer Gabriel Navarro) takes her under his wing, as do a quartet of chorines (Annie, Lorraine, Phyllis and Gladys, played by Jill Townsend, Jenny Hoffman, Janissa Saracino, and Missy Marion) who befriend her and take her out to lunch. On the way back to the theatre, Peggy literally runs into Julian, who eventually hires her for the chorus line and ultimately puts her into the leading role.

Julian is dealing with a leading lady (Dorothy Brock, played by fabulous singer Laura Dickinson) who can sing but is a mediocre dancer at best. That’s because Dorothy’s sugar daddy, Abner Dillon (Lance Carter), is underwriting “Pretty Lady.” She, however, still has eyes for her former lover, Pat Denning (Ryan Fahey). Julian finds out and hires some thugs to “disappear” Denning to Philadelphia.

6Complicated? You bet, but who cares when the tappers are tapping (choreographer Jill Gorrie) and the music is playing? Just a few numbers are the title song, “Lullaby of Broadway,” “About a Quarter to Nine,” and “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” heavy on the tap numbers, especially as performed by all the above (a 30-member company) including Katie Whalley Banville, Bets Malone, Todd Nielsen, and Don Le Master (also music director and onstage piano) plus an orchestra of 14, plus pianist Steve Withers. Don’t forget lighting design by Michael Von Hoffman and costume coordinator Beth Connelly.

“42nd Street” is music heaven (music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Al Dubin, book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble) except for SDMT’s nagging sound problem (sound designer Kevin Anthenill), which has an edge they’ve never fully resolved: Edgy voices plus edgy singing equals seemingly loud and definitely unpleasant, resulting in unhappy ears on this critic, who finds all else laudable, especially Townsend’s heap-sexy Julian, Dickinson’s mellifluous Dorothy, Navarro’s appealing Billy, and Jones’s game Peggy.

James Vasquez directs splendidly on a non-existent, non-traditional set that consists of the gussied-up Spreckels Theatre backstage with a few rolled-in pieces, curtains and veils. Magic happens.

—Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. Follow her blog at charlenebaldridge.com or reach her at charb81@gmail.com.

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