By Geary Danihy
There’s a certain bargain-basement quality to the production of 42nd Street, currently at Bridgeport’s Downtown Cabaret Theatre, and it has nothing to do with the cast, which is eager to please and can, when called upon, dance and sing up a storm. It has more to do with the sets, which look at times very tired and at other times mere afterthoughts. Given that this is a co-production with an outfit called Jersey Shore Productions, which originally staged the show at the Tropicana Casino in Atlantic City, one gets the feeling that a lot of what is seen on the stage was imposed on the Cabaret, a venue that is certainly capable of producing a visually engaging musical on a tight budget.
That being said, this 90-minute take on the Tony Award-winning musical offers a lot that is pleasing, especially in the “We’re in the Money” and “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” production numbers. Never known for the strength or depth of its book, the musical is basically a revue, a series of very good song and dance numbers loosely stitched together by a young-girl-makes-good plot that one might say is sheer Broadway fantasy if not for Shirley MacLaine’s career, which got its start when she went on for Carol Haney in the original production of The Pajama Game when Haney broke her ankle. Director/producer Hal Wallis was in the audience at one of MacLaine's performances and signed her as a contract player for Paramunt Pictures, so lightning does strike…but don’t quit your day job.
Home-grown talent is well represented in the production. Playing the role of the dictatorial director Julian Marsh is Rutledge Varley, who is a graduate of Avon Old Farms School. He gets to deliver the now hoary line, "You're going out there a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!" to the perky Melinda Vaggione, who plays Peggy Sawyer, the ingenue who decides, at then end of the “Lullaby of Boradway” number, that she will accept the starring role in the Broadway musical Marsh is producing rather than go back to Allentown, Pa.
Her opprotunity to become a star is brought about when, while rehearsing a dance number, she bumps into the show’s star, Dorothy Brock (Lauren Fijol), who falls to the stage and…yes…breaks her ankle!
Sawyer is given moral and amatory support by the cast’s aging “juvenile,” Billy Lawlor, played by Andrew Chartier, who trained at West Hartford’s Hartt School of Music. Of the program at Hartt, Chartier is quoted in a press release as saying that the school “was a major turning point for me. I learned to dance and re-learned acting and singing.” He apparently learned his lessons well, for he gives his all in such numbers as “Young and Healthy,” “Dames,” and the aforementioned “We’re in the Money.”
Before the start of the show, Hugh Hallinan, the Cabaret’s executive producer, gave a curtain talk in which he referenced the last full musical the Cabaret had produced, Sweet Charity, which won the Connecticut Critics Circle award for best musical of 2006. For those who saw that production, Hallinan’s reference evoked a vibrant, thoughtful presentation that demonstrated what can be done, quite well, on a limited budget. Evoking that production may not have been the wisest call for Hallinan, given that 42nd Street, in its current iteration, is more name-brand packaged product than an artistic expression of what the Cabaret staff is capable of. Still, a recent Saturday evening’s packed house, which included many families, seemed to be having a damn fine time, with youngsters dancing in the aisles during intermission and their elders humming along with the tunes and praising the cast’s energy as they exited.
The Downtown Cabaret Theatre needs to survive (it’s a wonderful venue), and if staging pre-packaged musicals such as 42nd Street gives the company the wherewithal to once again put on productions that it conceives, develops and imbues with its own distinct style and spin, then God bless 42nd Steet. May it draw capacity crowds and fill the Cabaret’s echoing coffers so that, eventually, the very creative Cabaret staff can once again do its own thing, which has always been very good.
42nd Street runs through Sunday, Jan, 4. For tickets or more information call 576-1636 or go to www.downtowncabaret.org.