Sleepy Street

The most exciting moment in 42nd Street, now running at the Hobby Center, happens right at the beginning of the show. A painted crimson curtain rises a couple of feet off the floor and then stops for a moment, revealing a stage jammed full of youthfully energetic, tap-dancing feet. They're precise, loud and bouncy, and they cause a visceral thrill to course through the audience. But after a while, the youthful energy in this razzmatazz production begins to wear thin. And it becomes apparent that there isn't much soul to the glittering, brassy Broadway show or its pretty young hoofers tapping in long, happy lines across the stage.

Michael Stewart, Mark Bramble, Harry Warren and Al Dubin's 42nd Street, which is based on a series of '30s movies, tells the backstage story of what it's like to put on an old-time Broadway musical. As directed by writer Bramble, the show practically bubbles over with gee-willikers sincerity. The musical within the musical, Pretty Lady, with its creamy top-hatted boys and leggy high-stepping girls, looks a lot like the silly productions from decades ago. And everybody is always either glowing with naive anticipation about the show or glowering with worry over whether it will go on.

We meet the young cast members just as they've been given their chorus-line jobs. The girls run around in their practice shorts and kewpie doll-like makeup, making lame, sexually suggestive jokes about the leading man: "He's a tenor, but he's got base ideas!" And the boys are there mostly because, well, girls need boys to dance with.

Into the sea of dancers storms Julian Marsh (Daren Kelly), the hard-fighting director with a heart of gold. He barks out the practice schedule. If these chorines want jobs, they've got to be willing to work all day, every day until the show opens, for 32 bucks a week! Of course, everyone is just thrilled to be working.

Then a latecomer arrives. The blond, always-grinning Peggy Sawyer (Shannon O'Bryan) comes bumbling in just after the cast has been set. She'd actually arrived on time but sat outside the stage door for most of the morning, too scared to come in for the audition. Turns out, Peggy can dance circles around the best of them, and she's a "looker" too. Even Billy Lawlor (Jeremy Benton), the randy tenor, notices pretty Peggy. She's turned away at first but eventually lands a part in the chorus.

The only thing missing is the star. Dorothy Brock (Marcy McGuigan) is past her prime -- aren't they all -- and she can't dance, but her cowboy boyfriend is backing the show, so Marsh doesn't have any choice but to cast Dorothy as the tortured star. Of course, she's got a sad backstory of her own involving a secret true love, but that doesn't stop her from behaving like the brat all stars are supposed to be, demanding dressing room remodels and screaming at clumsy chorus girls who bump into her.

This is a story that's been told often, in many different ways. It's not giving away anything to say that something good is bound to happen to Peggy, and something bad to Dorothy.

As old as the story is, it has a few dance numbers (choreographed by Randy Skinner) that will make anyone with rhythm start tapping. "Dames" is a splashy number with the boys dancing in those white top hats and the girls lying on the stage in a circle, forming kaleidoscope-like stars with their arms and legs, as revealed by an enormous mirror. 42nd Street is a huge, bejeweled orgy of tap-dancing legs that just keep coming at you. O'Bryan's lightning-fast feet are astonishing. And the show has some familiar tunes that'll make aficionados grin, including "I Only Have Eyes for You" and "Lullaby of Broadway."

The cast here is competent and even charismatic at moments, but most of the time the actors seem to be only going through the motions of a tired old tale. Even O'Bryan and her magical dancing feet can't generate enough rapid fire to cover up the empty soul at the center of this musical.

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Lee Williams