At the height of the Great Depression, among the norm of food rations and lack of jobs, imagine trying to fund a Broadway show. Clearly, it must take deep pockets and some deeply rich connections to do so, not to mention a well of talent. Welcome to “42nd Street,” the 1980 Broadway musical, based on a novel by Bradford Ropes and its 1933 Hollywood film adaptation. Having won the Drama Desk, Tony and Theatre World awards in ‘81, plus Laurence Olivier and Evening Standard awards in ‘84, not to mention its revival awards, too, “42 Street” is a tap-dance lover’s dream. Choreographed to well-known tunes of the era, many of which appeared in films—including “We’re in the Money” from “Gold Diggers of 1933” and “I Only Have Eyes for You” from 1934’s “Dames”—Opera House Theatre Company has ensured it’s in good hands with the lovely direction of Suellen Yates.
We spoke with Yates and two of her cast members, Stephanie Tucker and Christopher Rickert, about what to expect of the show. Here’s how our convo unfolded…
encore (e): What do you love most about “42nd Street”?
Suellen Yates (SY): Whenever “42nd Street” comes up in conversations, the first reaction is usually “That’s a tap show!” While it is certainly true, the fabulous score, and the compelling and heartwarming storyline, as well as the incredible production numbers, all combine to make it often referred to as “quintessential musical theatre.” The fact is: Not every musical is strong in all three areas. So the opportunity to direct a show that has it “all” has been very exciting.
Opera House is so fortunate to have Tina Leak as the choreographer for this show. First of all, she was a New York Rockette. That alone should tell you her tapping skills are phenomenal. I have often said at rehearsals that this is the hardest working cast I have ever worked with and Tina certainly tops that list.
e: What have been some of the challenges of the show?
SY: Of course, our first concern: “Are we going to be able to find the number of highly skilled male and female tappers needed for this show?”
Well, we certainly did.
The local dance community has given birth to so many talented dancers because of fabulous dance academies and instructors in town. Not only do we have amazing student tappers in the cast but we have some instructors, like dancing megastar Brooklyne Williamson-Moore who owns and operates Evolution Dance Complex. Brooklyne performs in our show, has also let Tina use one of her studios to work on the production numbers and to give tap classes to any of our cast members who wanted to work on their tapping skills outside of rehearsals. Her involvement has been critical to our success.
The most challenging part for me has been creating transitions between scenes that flow without interruption or pause. I love fast-paced musicals and do not like the action to come to a halt while the scene is changed. I was so fortunate to have the multi-talented Mirla Criste create the most amazing slides, which add so much to those scenes.
e: Tell me a little about the music.
SY: Under the direction of the incredibly gifted and talented Steve Field, the songs and orchestra just soar. He has worked countless hours behind the scenes and never flinched when I said “Would it be possible to…?” He has definitely earned my respect, admiration and gratitude.
e: And your cast…
SY: I have the privilege to work with two New York guest artists in this show. Rachael Murray, who is playing megastar Dorothy Brock, and Spencer Lawson, playing the juvenile lead, Billy Lawler. We are so lucky. They both are a pleasure to work with and I know Wilmington audiences will fall in love with them and be thrilled at the opportunity to see them perform at Thalian Hall.
The two leads, Stephanie Tucker and Chris Rickert, are local performers. Just to give you an idea of their talent, we thought we were going to have to bring guest artists from New York to fill these roles, but both of incredible locals earned their roles at audition.
There seems to be no end to Stephanie’s talent—dancing, singing, acting. Her personal story is sort of a parallel to Peggy Sawyer, the character she is portraying. I believe this is her first starring role, and she is a lovely person. We have not seen the end of her talent yet.
I have been a fan of Chris Rickert for many years and have cast him in several roles from Enjolras in “Les Mis” to the lion in “The Wizard of Oz,” which should indicate his amazing range. Wait until you hear him sing the title song as the iconic Julian Marsh.
e: Stephanie and Christopher, what do you love most about your characters? How will they relate to audiences?
Christopher Rickert (CR): I admire Julian’s focus and passion, which drive him. They make him come across as tough and demanding, and he gets a chance to remember he really loves what he does, and he started doing it for a reason.
Even those lucky enough to get to love what they do for a living can let distractions, ambitions, and the everyday grind make them forget why they started. The really lucky ones have the realization they’ve lost sight of that love—like a, “Oh, yeah, I really love this process, this experience, this challenge.”
Stephanie Tucker (ST): I absolutely love Peggy’s sincerity and work ethic. She has big Broadway dreams and is determined to get there, but through honesty and hard work. She is is constantly walking a line between self-confidence and self-doubt—something I think most people can relate to. The relationships she has built with everyone involved in Pretty Lady provide her the encouragement she needs to grab hold of her dreams and lead the show.
I believe everyone has questioned their own abilities in stressful moments, and to push through doubt, the support of others can make all the difference.
e: How do they drive the plot?
ST: Peggy’s passion is palpable. Her passion is what brings her from Allentown, PA, to Broadway in the first place. Even in moments of self-doubt, she is drawn back to the stage by her love of performing and entertaining an audience.
CR: Julian is the director of the show, so everyone jumps when he hollers. That’s what makes Peggy so special is she changes the track the locomotive is on.
e: Do you have a favorite number?
ST: “Go Into Your Dance”—it’s Peggy’s first opportunity to make real connections with Maggie and the other girls in the show like Anytime Annie, with the dance director, Andy, and with Julian, the director. She gets to “show her stuff” and also begin to build relationships that continue through the rest of the show. Plus the energy and pace of the number is fantastic!
CR: “42nd Street”—this dance chorus is phenomenal and I’ve been saying all though this process how lucky I feel to get to watch them dance for free at all the rehearsals. Stephanie and Spencer also shine particularly bright in this number.
e: So who makes up the ensemble?
SY: When a director has headliners like Deb Gillingham, Dick Bunting, Jason Aycock and Kendra Goehring-Garrett stepping into supporting roles, they are very lucky and it definitely raises the bar for this entire show. However, it is the hardest working ensemble ever—singing and dancing and acting and making elaborate costumes changes for every scene (sometimes with only seconds). They are the heart and soul of the production.
e: Who’s outfitting the cast?
SY: Our costumer, Allyson Mojica, has stepped up to the plate and knocked a home run. Her vision has given this show the perfect 1930s look—from glamour to “hobo” and many looks in between. I could not begin to count the number of costumes.
e: How does this show still remain relevant in 2019?
SY: I think the show remains relevant today because of its universal dream of small-town girl making it to the top on Broadway. The show even has a line about how “every little girl who loves theatre dreams of someday making it to Broadway” I know I did, and honestly a small part of me still does—even at my age! I would be willing to bet there are many young artists in Wilmington, taking dance lessons, or acting lessons and dreaming of performing on Broadway someday. I have had the pleasure of working with several local actors who have actually made that same dream come true.