Munyficent!: 42nd Street rates a nearly perfect 10

It's the oldest "let's put on a show" plot in the world. At the end of Act One of 42nd Street, which this week opens the Muny season, the temperamental diva of an out-of-town musical breaks her ankle. Now the humorless director must swallow his pride and ask the chorus girl he has just fired to rejoin the company and save the show. And so, early in Act Two, he sings "Lullaby of Broadway." Most of us could sing along with him; it's a song we've known all our lives. Some of the lyrics are pretty hokey. Something to do with calling it a day because the milkman's on his way.

But when Robert Cuccioli sings "Lullaby of Broadway," he caresses the lyrics so tenderly that the familiar anthem becomes an unlikely love song. The director's devotion to theater is hidden between the lines, the same way the unspoken love story in The King and I resides between the lines. Up till now Cuccioli's stage director, Julian Marsh, has barked and snarled in the same imperious manner that the actor might use to portray the King of Siam. Finally, in this one song he allows us to penetrate his reserved façade. After the first verse or two, Marsh is joined by everyone in the production, all of them singing and dancing their hearts out about milkmen. And when, on opening night, the bravura number climaxed with the entire ensemble onstage, as the audience roared its approval, Cuccioli — not Julian Marsh the tough director, but Cuccioli the visiting actor — looked at costar Shannon M. O'Bryan (she who has decided to stay and save the show) and for the first time all night smiled. It was the kind of spontaneous, surprised smile that seemed to be saying, "So this is what it's like to stop a show at the Muny. This is fun!"

42nd Street, which was originally assembled in 1980 by theater genius Gower Champion, is filled with savvy theater craft. One of its many wonders is that the show-stopping "Lullaby of Broadway" is followed by the simplest song of the evening. "About a Quarter to Nine" is actually a kind of benediction, wherein our haughty diva (she of the broken ankle) reveals her innate decency and blesses her young replacement. The sum total of the choreography here is for the two actresses to sit still and gently sway their arms. Yet the effect is sheer magic. By evening's end Dee Hoty's diva has become a kind of oxymoron, for she emanates a severe warmth. Her portrayal of Dorothy Brock is nigh perfect.

The Muny's 42nd Street soars sky-high.
Larry Pry/the Muny
The Muny's 42nd Street soars sky-high.

As for the ingénue, I've seen many a Peggy Sawyer through the years. Most are terrific dancers. But Shannon M. O'Bryan also embodies the show's essence: In her Sandra Dee curls, she is a paean to innocence. And completely captivating.

Choreographer Kelli Barclay has drilled the dancers to near perfection. Director Lee Roy Reams is surely responsible for the sense of detail that permeates the production. Reams created the role of Billy Lawlor (here enacted with disarming energy by Todd Lattimore) in the original Broadway production, so he knows the show to his core. He has paid attention to every second, every gesture, every inflection.

There are in fact numerous small flaws in the production; casting choices, for instance, that surely were beyond Reams' control. Yet these flaws shrivel before the mounting momentum of what works. (It works, for instance, for so much of the action to occupy the full Muny stage, thus keeping the intrusive booms out of sight whenever possible.) This 42nd Street keeps getting better as the brisk evening plays out. By the end, when Julian Marsh reminds us that "Broadway dreams still do come true," we are prone to believe him, for there are moments here so skillfully executed that they play like a dream. The Muny is off to a crackerjack start.

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