SAN DIEGO — It is easy to mistake "42nd Street" for the Cinderella story of Peggy Sawyer, the starry-eyed chorine who, in 36 hours, moves from being a homespun hoofer fired from her first Broadway show to being the star of that same production.
Not that spunky little Peggy doesn't come off looking like the center both to audiences of "42nd Street" and the unseen ones attending the show within the show. But on closer inspection, Peggy's story, while crucial, is just a thread in the larger tale of the hard-bitten producer, Julian Marsh, struggling against the odds to assemble the money, talent and vision necessary to put the musical "Pretty Lady" together.
It is an example of "metatheater"--theater about itself--in which real-life producer David Merrick, who was on a professional slide back in 1980, gambled that a 1933 Warner Brothers movie could be revived as a splashy Broadway musical.
In a way, the whole show was his Peggy Sawyer. And, like that curly-haired chorus girl, it tapped its heart out for him, coming up a winner, picking up a Tony for best musical and audiences that, even now, just won't quit.
But catch the details. After Peggy's triumph, who does she give all the credit to?--Marsh. And it is he, not Peggy, who gets the last song--and a solo no less.
One of the many grand elements in United States International University's sparkling San Diego premiere of "42nd Street," playing at the Theatre in Old Town through March 13, is that they never lose sight of that story within the story within the story.
A nod is in order for the university's astute investment in Ron Husmann, an experienced Broadway actor, as Marsh. In yet another example of metatheater, it is a treat to watch the seasoned professional guide the student actors playing young actors in how to do a show by the sheer example of his own assured professionalism.
But what really keeps the show clicking is Jack Tygett's deft direction of a spirited and talented cast that never stops projecting the sense that they're getting a kick and a half out of every high kick they do.
Marilyn Rising is appealingly ingenuous as Peggy--too shy to quite look people in the eye, but with the unabashed honesty that causes her to respond to a comment about how good her dancing is with a simple "I know." As Dorothy Brock, the to-be-deposed star, Kathleen Hope Rosenfeld takes on the challenge of building a person from the materials of caricature and delivers the goods. Playing the prima donna, the jealous woman, the woman in love, and the actress who cares about her art, Rosenfeld walks the fine line between parody and humanity with ease and then turns around and does back flips on it.
Bob Mack's turn is appealingly funny--if a bit young--as Brock's sugar daddy and Sarah Lang offers a pleasurable counterpoint to all the sweetness with her delivery of the wisecracking dancer, Maggie Jones.
As for Adam Pelty, so delightful as the twin brothers in USIU's recent production of Carlos Goldoni's "The Venetian Twins," watching him sing and dance as the young tenor Billy Lawlor is a revelation. Is there anything this extremely talented young actor can't do? Certainly, there is one thing he should do-- and that is more shows.
The choreography, originally designed by Gower Champion who also directed the Broadway show, has been brightly adapted for this production by Joyce Schumaker and Pam Thompson, who is responsible for the tap sequences. The dancers turn out the steps with verve, with some especially nice dancing by Michael Guarnera in a ballet street sequence.
The musical direction by Kerry Duse works smoothly with the assembly of strong voices, under the vocal direction of Roy Mote. The costumes by Juan Lopez offer a feast of wildly bright colors and details--cleverly contrasting scarfs, ties, jackets and hats. The lighting by Deborah Rosengrant is subtle and effective, but the sets by Jeff Thomson, while clever for what they are--there is a particularly nice fold-up train for "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" number--have that cardboard look common to victims of limited budgets. This is one show about shows where too much would have been barely enough.
There is one last precious bit of metatheater clinging to this production. It is quite a coup for little USIU to put on the San Diego premiere of the highly sought-after musical (it's a full-cast reproduction minus one song, "Dames")--and to come up with such a winner. Starlight will get its crack at the show this summer; they would do well to mix their expertise and resources with this much heart.
Performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. through March 13. At The Theatre in Old Town, 4040 Twiggs St., San Diego.