More often than not, I find the point of musical theatre to be spectacle: Bright colors moving quickly, and under the right “mental influences” that can be pretty entertaining alone. Though when throwing in talent, it’s a game-changer. And I don’t mean a glimmer of talent or even a single spotlight of it. No, no—the amount and type of talent I’m talking about shines so bright and burns so quickly, it resembles multitudes of stars in the sky on a clear night. It’s the type of spectacle that does more than kill time and more than simply entertain. It’s the type to be experienced before it burns out and can be seen no more. That is the experience Opera House Theatre Company has created for Wilmington with “42nd Street” It’s a toe-tapping ode to the old days of Broadway—a tried-and-true formula for a musical’s plot.
To be short, sweet and to the point: Director Suellen Yates has masterfully led her cast and crew with a clear vision across the board to connect all aspects of “42nd Street” on and off the stage. Taking what could come off as another gaudy musical and shaping it into something resembling a Robert Altman-like tale, it plays out in a way like “Nashville” or “A Prairie Home Companion.” The story isn’t about one person’s struggle, but the slice-of-life moments that make us bond as people and grow within our social groups. In a way it’s the most mature take on this style of plot I have ever seen. Or it could just be a PG version of “Showgirls.” I’m still trying to analytically break it down, but the evidence is there.
With the crescendo of the overture, the curtain begins to rise but just a tease. Legions of tap-dancing feet are revealed and it’s an awesome way to draw the audience’s eye to the stars of the show. “42nd Street” is all about the feet—they’re the true stars because once they start moving at an amazing speed, it never stops nor slows. I had no idea Wilmington possessed so many talented tappers.
Honestly, wow! The fact so many people pulled off these incredible numbers, one after the next, and looked professional doing it, speaks wonders to the talent of the production’s choreographer Tina Leak. Every dance is a feast for the eyes, and I can’t imagine the amount of time it took to come up with, teach and memorize them all. There is only one word: impressive. The great sets of feet alone make the show worthwhile. Yet, there’s so much more to adore.
When the lights wash the stage, and Jason Aycock stands at the center, stoic, he’s like a general facing down the enemy with his army standing ready behind him. And they go into their dance. The opening moments of the production and the audience will be helpless, but to be caught up in the unabashedly sense of fun it carries through its entire run. I can never stress pace enough as helping a show’s success, and damn does this show move at a good one.
It’s the final minutes of auditions for infamous director Julian Marsh’s (Christopher Rickert) latest play “Pretty Lady.” From the writing dynamic duo of Maggie and Bert (Debra Gillingham and Richard Bunting) hammering out rewrites on the script, to the company’s talents like Billy Lawlor (Spencer S. Lawson), the precast juvenile lead and Andy Lee (Jason Aycock) the choreographer figuring out the rest of the cast, the theatre is abuzz with life. Fresh off the bus, and with stars in her eyes, walks in Peggy Sawyer (Stephanie Tucker). She immediately grabs the attention of all who witness her talent.
The entire cast is on fire. Every single member works at the top of his and her game. Plus, it is a huge cast, so hats off to them all. From lead to ensemble, everyone is pulling their weight for the final product and it shows.
As life in theatre goes, there is only room for one star. Blowing in on a cloud of her own hot air is the company’s prima donna, Dorothy Brock (Rachel Murray), and she has come to shine, even if the shows need to be rewritten to fit her. Murray is great in the role, which could easily be played rather one-note by a lesser skilled actress. The range she puts her voice through in numbers such as “Shadow Waltz,” all the way to “About a Quarter to Nine,” will stun—not only in her vocal prowess, but she puts her character’s attitude in her singing to create a fully formed character. A detail sometimes overlooked on stage by singers.
On the other side of the diva coin is sweet and innocent Peggy Sawyer. Tucker is so engaging in the role, she makes the audience root for the small-town girl. It is a true sign of how much effort she has put into the character. From her singing to dancing, she gives Peggy heart and nails every scene and with unquestionable talent at every turn. Tucker’s Peggy never comes off arrogant or entitled due to her skills. So when she swings in at the last moment and saves the doomed production, the audience will have no choice but to cheer for her—maybe even wipe a tear from their eyes.
Debra Gillingham as Maggie is lightning in a bottle—present in every moment she graces the stage. Her facial reactions are some of the show’s funniest moments. She is completely committed to every note, every step, every joke, and she kills it every time. Her energy is boundless as she leads the actresses as something of a den mother in numbers like “Go into Your Dance” and “Shuffle Off to Buffalo.” Debra, you are hands down the stand out, brava!
But don’t think the guys get left in the dust. Spencer S. Lawson seemingly walks on air with his dance moves, especially the show-stealing razzle-dazzle number, “We’re in the Money.” Christopher Rickert brings a natural, warm center to the cold demeanor of the director. He truly caps the show perfectly with his solo reprisal of the title number “42nd Street”
The play being set in the world of theatre is a real plus. When teamed with the lighting design by Jeff Loy, the scope of stage shows well with shadows dancing on the walls in the “Shadow Waltz,” and the sound is on point. But from a tech standpoint, it’s the production’s costuming by Allyson Mojica that impresses. Everything looks stylish and stunning, which must not have been an easy job—to dress so many people in so many arrangements of clothes.
Opera House can at times be seen as something of a big shark in our small pond here in Wilmington. When they produce show like this, it’s easy to see why.