When the lights dim, the curtain at the Cadillac Palace Theatre rises slowly, exposing forty pairs of feet dancing perfectly in sync. The curtain pauses at knee-height, focusing your eyes on the muscular legs shuffling, flapping, and triple-stepping faster than you can blink, driving home the point that this is what Broadway in Chicago’s 42nd Street is about: dance and energy. Not just physical energy (though that’s present in spades) but the mental and psychological energy needed to succeed in “the business.”
For those Millennials and other heathens not familiar with show, this “song and dance fable about Broadway” tells the tale of young Peggy Sawyer (Caitlin Ehlinger) from podunk Pennsylvania. Intent on auditioning for famed director Julian Marsh (Matthew J. Taylor) and his new show Pretty Lady, she quickly learns that it takes more than fast feet and a pretty face to make it on 42nd Street.
Director/co-author Mark Bramble and choreographer Randy Skinner both won Tony Awards for the 42nd Street revival in 2001, and it’s easy to understand why. A musical about musicals, set in the 1930s, has the potential to seem overly nostalgic today. But this Broadway in Chicago rendition hits exactly the right balance between fluff and vamp, chic and camp, resulting in a technically brilliant performance and a rollicking good time.
It’s hard to call a song a “showstopper” when all the numbers are equally stunning. This production charges forward at top speed, with scene and costume changes happening faster than a shuffle-of-the-buffalo. And those costumes! Whether the chorus line sports nearly invisible gold leotards in “Dames” or Depression-era rompers in “Audition,” the outfits elevate and complement the songs without distracting from the singing.
But 42nd Street isn’t just froth. The characters can hit the poignant notes too; as aging starlet Dorothy Brock, actress Kaitlin Lawrence brims with both jealousy and tenderness. Ehlinger excels at showing Peggy’s fear when Dorothy’s sudden injury thrusts her, Peggy, into into the limelight. Before Pretty Lady’s opening night, the experienced Dorothy consoles Peggy in her dressing room, instructing her to “go out there and be so swell you’ll make me hate you.” Perhaps the cast members of 42nd Street tell each other the same thing before they step onstage, for the performance is, in a word, swell.
We in the audience might not know the tumult of dancing “in the line” or the anxiety that comes from being center stage, but we all know the giddy belly-panic that comes when what we want the most just might, just maybe, come true. This show is dizzying. This show is dazzling. At $85 for a front-row ticket, 42nd Street is well worth it; you’re invited to experience the legendary, mythical old Broadway through the eyes of those young enough to still believe in it.
42nd Street runs two and a half hours with a 15 minute intermission. Catch it at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, through March 20. Tickets are $19-$85 and can be purchased here or by calling the Broadway in Chicago ticket line at 800-775-2000.
All photos provided by Broadway in Chicago.