Sixty years ago, Tanya Moiseiwitsch changed the course of theatre history when she reinvented the thrust stage for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Her design was then copied and improved upon around the world, and you see its legacy everywhere from the Lincoln Center to the Royal Shakespeare Company.
But while it used to be argued that a stage that sticks out into the audience was the ideal for staging Shakespeare, it's hard to really buy that philosophy whole-hog any more. Notable productions of Othello and Twelfth Night are as likely to pop up in studio theatres, immersive spaces or even behind a good old proscenium arch these days.
I do wonder, however, if the thrust isn't the perfect place for another form of theatre: dance musicals. As with West Side Story a few seasons back, watching 42nd Street, the tap-happy 1980 backstage musical based on a 1933 movie, in Stratford's Festival Theatre adds an extra thrill.
The legs seem to come at you, as if you're watching a movie in 3-D, and it feels like at any moment the head of a well-heeled patron in the front row might be sent soaring into the balcony by a chorus girl's high kick.
42nd Street is all about the hoofing, in numbers set to well-known 1930s ditties by composer Harry Warren and lyricist Al Dubin – the likes of We're in the Money, You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me and Lullaby of Broadway. On that level, it succeeds: Alex Sanchez's choreography contains some tip-top tap, and the energetic Stratford ensemble does a heck of a job executing it.
But your enjoyment of the evening will depend on your answer to the question Dubin poses in the song Dames: "Who cares if there's a plot or not, when they've got a lot of dames?"
In fairness, 42nd Street does have a plot, it just happens to be a non-stop pile-up of clichés about the making of Broadway musicals, the kind familiar to any viewer of the TV series, Smash.
Peggy Sawyer (Jennifer Rider-Shaw) is the innocent ingénue from small-town USA who catapults from the chorister to star; Julian Marsh (Sean Arbuckle) is the dictatorial director who desperately needs his new show, Pretty Lady, to be a hit; Dorothy Brock (Cynthia Dale) is the aging marquee name kept rolling in roles due to her connections to a producer with deep pockets.
The casting of the Stratford production is one giant wink. Rider-Shaw, a toothy chipmunk with killer dance moves, actually is a Stratford ensemble member thrust into the spotlight with usual young leading lady Chilina Kennedy tied up on Broadway, while Dale is a former star returning to the festival after being conspicuously absent for the entire time Des McAnuff has been in charge.
Rider-Shaw exudes an innocence that's appealing and genuine, but we don't see quite enough charisma in her singing or acting to dub her a true triple threat. Dale, meanwhile, certainly still has a magnetic presence – and there must be a portrait of her aging somewhere in her attic next to Peter Mansbridge's golf clubs – but her performance never really moves beyond caricature.
I'm not really sure how much of that has to do with their performances versus director Gary Griffin's stylized, almost expressionistic approach to the musical. He seems to embrace the stock nature of the characters. (Kyle Blair, Geoffrey Tyler, Gabrielle Jones and Naomi Costain are standout cartoons.) There's little real life to anyone here, with the notable exception of Arbuckle's Marsh.
42nd Street is described repeatedly as "nostalgic" in the program notes, but the numbers from the show-within-a-show in Griffin's production seem anything but. They get darker and darker as the evening progresses.
Dames – "Oh! Dames are temporary flames to you / dames, you don't recall their names, do you?" – is chilling in its parade of vacant grins and exposed flesh. Later, objectification turns into sexual violence in a dance set to the catchy, but menacing title number with its refrain, "Where the underworld meets the elite; 42nd Street."
Griffin's production seems to contain an implied critique of 1930s Broadway – both the theatre district and the surrounding underworld that Damon Runyon sanitized and romanticized.
I'm not sure if Dale is still in character as Dorothy Brock during the curtain call, but it's one thing for her to get the final bow, another for her to linger on the stage alone after all others have exited to give an extra little sailor salute. Was that another in-joke? Like so much in this compelling spectacle, it's hard to tell what to take seriously.
- Music by Harry Warren
- Lyrics by Al Dubin
- Book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble
- Directed by Gary Griffin
- Starring Jennifer Rider-Shaw, Cynthia Dale
- At the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ont.
42nd Street runs at Stratford's Festival Theatre until Oct. 28.