From the snow of White Christmas to the satire of The Producers, San Diego Musical Theatre can’t resist a show-within-a-show. The backstage musical comedy 42nd Street, on view at the Spreckels Theatre through June 12, is jammed with terrific tap dancing and classic tunes that stick in your head.
The production directed by James Vasquez is so entertaining you can almost forget its woefully dated plot. Compared to shows like Hamilton and Bright Star, it’s far from illuminating.
Still, this 42nd Street is a worthy ode to Broadway. You’ll want to climb on stage and shuffle off to Buffalo with the sparkling cast.
Jill Gorrie’s choreography, after Busby Berkeley, includes exhilarating tap numbers with eye-pleasing wings, triples, and pull backs, all in sharp unison.
It opens with Don LeMaster conducting musicians in the pit, “where they belong” says Bets Malone, who plays Maggie Jones, the fearless co-writer and producer of the show in a show “Pretty Lady.” When the curtain rises, the stage rumbles with tap dancing feet that make our hearts race.
As big as the production is, 42nd Street is a speck of dust story about hoofers and singers and a famed director trying to mount a musical extravaganza during the Great Depression. Shin busters are thrilled to make $32 a week.
Laura Dickinson is a commanding presence as Dorothy Brock, the diva who can’t dance. Her sultry voice shines in “I Know Now,” and her timing is swift. One minute she’s Cruella DeVille, the next she’s channeling Lucille Ball when rolled off stage while perched on a giant ladder.
Ruth Jones plays the ingénue Peggy Sawyer from Allentown, Penn. Dressed in a dowdy sailor frock, she arrives to the audition late, but impresses with tap dancing at warp speed. Her hyperactive shtick would never fly in real life. She can’t stay in formation and slams into everyone, including the boss.
Silvery Robert Townsend, a longtime favorite, plays director Julian Marsh with aplomb and draws ovations for his big voiced “Lullaby of Broadway” and “42nd Street Reprise.”
He’s the director we love to hate. When rehearsing for her big debut, he gives dingy Peggy deep kisses until her voice and personality changes. She needs a man to help her blossom into a real star. Oh my. Even her hair goes from frizzy to straight. What a funny and creepy scene rolled into one.
Based on the 1933 Hollywood film adaptation, the musical remains wildly popular because of its giant tap dance numbers, top hats and canes, and soft shoe grapevines. Gabriel Navarro, a splendid hoofer and singer, plays Billy Lawlor the leading tenor, and shimmers in silver atop a giant coin.
The show includes tunes gleaned from several films such as “We’re in the Money” (San Diegans may remember it as a radio jingle for La Jolla Bank and Trust) and “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” which has some of the funniest lines about divorce in Reno. Malone brings the house down here. A few songs written in high registers may be too whiny for modern ears.
The show delivers. Costumes are colorful and aptly vintage. Scenic design is spare yet effective, switching from backstage, to on stage, and a honeymoon train.
Nobody goes on a honeymoon train anymore, but this production is a fun and family friendly ride. When Townsend slows the tempo in the final “42nd Street” reprise, you can’t help but sing along, onto Broadway Avenue and all the way to your car.
“Come and meet those dancing feet,
On the avenue I’m taking you to,
Hear the beat of dancing feet,
It’s the song I love the melody of,
42nd Street continues through June 12 2016 at the Spreckels Theatre. Visit www.sdmt.org or call 858.560.5740.