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THEATER REVIEW : A Show-Biz Fantasy Gets a Touch of Love

March 23, 1995|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If John Travoltacan stage a comeback, then the fairy - tale rise of chorus girl Peggy Sawyer in "42nd Street" is more than possible. At this rate, Broadway star Dorothy Brock, whom Peggy replaces when Brock breaks her ankle, could stage her own form of a "Pulp"-mania return from the dead.

This year's Oscar fantasy come true is making Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities' production of the Harry Warren-Al Dubin musical paean to backstage Broadway seem like a document of how show-biz works. Of course, Michael Stewart's and Mark Bramble's book intended something else when this show first appeared in 1980: A romance of how we would like show-biz to be, where the new kid gets her break and becomes a star.

It's the American fantasy too, which is why "42nd Street," inspired by the Warners Bros. Depression-era movie and based on Bradford Ropes' novel, is such a satisfying show. What makes this edition at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center especially trustworthy is that director-choreographer Jon Engstrom, as dance captain of the original Gower Champion staging, knows this work intimately.

Engstrom stages each scene in the making of the Julian Marsh show-within-the-show, "Pretty Lady," with a palpable affection. He constructs charming stage pictures, as when we see each cast member in a kind of "Hollywood Squares"-like grid framed by vanity lights and singing "There's a Sunny Side to Ev'ry Situation." He displays unabashed respect for the classic tap-dance form and obviously demands a disciplined corps of tappers.

This is no motley group of replacement players; this is major league execution of showy fluff.

*

Engstrom's high standard is the only one possible for a musical about how first-rate talent--even if it is buried in the chorus line--really can reach stardom, and how stardom can only be reached through hard work. Watching Holly Lee Bosil's adorable and durable Peggy sweat out Marsh's (Michael G. Hawkins) tough task-mastering is like getting a glimpse into Engstrom's own, strong professionalism.

These panicky scenes before Peggy's first-ever, opening night appearance in the lead are perhaps the production's most evocative, as pressure-filled as the early audition and out-of-town tryout scenes are sweetly fun. Seasoning the youthful sweetness is Sylvia Brooks as a sinewy, classy Dorothy Brock. Brooks plays this star as if she is still on top of her game, and has a voice to back it up. If you were the producer, you would panic too if she broke her ankle.

Bosil does the fine trick of blossoming before our eyes, and Hawkins etches a character study in a show that doesn't allow for much of that sort of thing. Christopher Nilsson's Billy is the ideal male ingenue who always seems to be dancing. Maggie Jones, as the ultra-loquacious half of "Pretty Lady's" writing team, delivers some Broadway-scale comedy.

Some elements here aren't quite to the same scale. Musical director and conductor Irv Kimber's orchestra could use some of the tight coordination we see on stage. The scenery, borrowed from Houston's Theatre Under the Stars company, amounts to a series of blandly painted cloth scrims--definitely below the Engstrom standard, which is to do what you love with class.

"42nd Street," Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, Manhattan Beach and Aviation boulevards, Redondo Beach. Tonight through Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Sunday. $20-$35. (310) 372-4477. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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