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Stage Review : A Fresh Air Whips Along '42nd Street'

October 16, 1987|RAY LOYND

"42nd Street" at the Long Beach Civic Light Opera unfurls like a vivid scarf that keeps turning itself into brighter pieces of material. The production has verve and high-stepping bravado that make you think Broadway , where the David Merrick/Gower Champion show is still running seven years after its opening.

For musical theater buffs who missed this backstage song-and-dance fable when it played the Shubert, the Long Beach rendition, with its precision and splash, is certainly on a par with, if not better than, the former national company. A feast of tapping hoofers, costumes, creamy Art Deco sets and terrific choral work kicks off the LBCLO's season with a flare seldom seen in the Terrace Theater.

Director-choreographer Jon Engstrom, a dancer in the original Broadway show, knows how to mine the ore from this Tony-winning show. Its success has always relied on its freshness, the cliches of the 1933 Warner Bros.' "42nd Street" classic notwithstanding (that movie's ingenue, Ruby Keeler, attended Saturday's opening night). And the LBCLO version is nothing if not fresh.

The show enjoys a trio of strong principals: a forceful John McCook in the harried role of the stage director, Laura Killingsworth as the temperamental star who's knocked out of opening night and Cathy Wydner as the struggling chorine who gets a shot at stardom and saves the show.

Wydner catches the enchantment of the innocent, untalented Peggy Sawyer from Allentown, Pa. Conspicuously gawky with arms akimbo, Wydner is transformed from a dancer who moves like a stork into a figure of sheen, grace and tapping sensuality in the show's explosive, closing title number.

One duet in that gangster number, between Wydner and dance partner Kirby Ward (the Dick Powell role in the movie), is the production's highlight--a rite of sexual attraction tapped out in the best tradition of street warfare.

Engstrom, of course, has skillfully reproduced the original direction and choreography of Champion (who died on the day of the show's opening in 1980). He has also followed the original production's comparative indifference to the suggestion of sweat and grime in 1933 America. The movie does a better job of making you feel the dark edges of its world. The stage treatment (with book by Mark Bramble and the late Michael Stewart) has caustic wit, but this is a musical with absolutely nothing on its mind but to be ferociously delightful. The creators' arrow lands somewhere between satire and rose-colored affection.

Musical direction by Steven Smith is especially sharp. You can actually hear the words being sung, even in ensemble numbers, which is an uncommon joy that enhances the work of prolific film composer Harry Warren and lyricist Al Dubin ("We're In the Money," "Lullaby of Broadway," "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" and others).

Finger-painted secondary roles are seen in Gene Castle's dance captain and Belle Calaway's brassy hoofer (Ginger Rogers in the film). Robin Wagner's original designs, such as the giant human silhouettes in "Shadow Waltz" and the berths full of showgirls on the clacking Niagara Unlimited, slyly help earmark the show's durability.

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