Encore Theatre's "42nd Street" brings excellent energy to a classic backstage story


Encore Theatre's production of 42nd Street.

 Allison Bell as Peggy Sawyer in Encore Theatre's production of 42nd Street. Photo by Michele Anliker Photography.

The Encore Theatre’s production of 42nd Street is a great burst of energy, a thunderous display of tap dancing and a funny, charming, nostalgic return to another place and time.

When the curtain rises, the intimate Encore stage is full of rigorously syncopated dancers rehearsing in a frenzy. The bright colors, lights, and energetic tap dancing that open the show display the special mix of Depression-era anxiety and the joy of putting on a musical.

In 1980, Broadway producer David Merrick gambled that the 1933 hit movie musical 42nd Street would find a new audience on Broadway. Under the direction and choreography of Gower Champion, the show struck gold.

The 1933 movie had been a big hit, coming as it did in the midst of the Great Depression, and it acknowledged the hard times while promoting the idea that things will get better—and in the meantime, let’s have some fun. Based on a novel, the musical introduced the classic story of the chorus girl who becomes a star. 

The film and stage musical features the music of Harry Warren and lyrics by Al Dubin.

Scott Thompson directed and choreographed the Encore production. The relatively small stage and the large cast provided a special challenge. But the real challenge was in bringing out all the energy of the dancing and intricate rhythms that bring audiences to their feet. He presents a show that has that energy. The press opening had a few technical glitches, but overall this is perfect summer entertainment.

Encore Theatre's production of 42nd Street.

Sarah B. Stevens as Dorothy Brock in Encore Theatre's production of 42nd Street. Photo by Michele Anliker Photography.

42nd Street is a backstage musical. Broadway director Juian Marsh is trying to get a show on the boards to replenish his losses on Wall Street. The musical will star the temperamental and demanding Broadway diva Dorothy Brock, who has helped line up financial banking from a rich Texan, while also trying to keep aflame her longtime love affair with a song-and-dance man.

Peggy Sawyer is an eager, talented, and shy girl from Allentown, Pennsylvania. She makes friends with the chorus girls and the male lead, shows a lot of promise, and isn’t quite sure she has what it takes. Can she make it to Broadway? Of course, she can.

Allison Bell makes her Encore debut as Peggy Sawyer. She’s got rhythm, energy, and the necessary mix of Allentown sweetness with a bit of youthful flirtation. Bell gives some dimension and warmth to the alternately naive and ambitious chorus girl.

Bobby MacDonell brings swagger to the role of Billy Lawler, a fast-dancing and fast-talking young man who makes a play for Peggy. MacDonnell is a fine dancer and singer. 

Bell and MacDonell team on several songs and dances including the "Forty Second Street Ballet."

David Moan, a fine singer, is a wonderful, brash Julian Marsh. His voice booms. He has a bit of the con man mixed in with a real love of showbiz and the adventure of new. Moan makes him both appropriately bombastic and sentimental.

Sarah B. Stevens plays the diva Dorothy Brock. As always, Stevens delivers a funny, flamboyant interpretation. She also sings several stand-out songs including "I Only Have Eyes for You."

Encore Theatre's production of 42nd Street.

Bobby MacDonell as Billy Lawler in Encore Theatre's production of 42nd Street. Photo by Michele Anliker Photography.

The large cast is excellent. Notable are Rob Ouellette as the choreographer in the play who opens up the show, providing just the right snap; Elizabeth McGuire as Annie, Peggy’s friend and champion, is a nice dancer and singer; and Gayle E. Martin as Maggie brings a brassy, bluesy voice to several numbers and is the mother hen for the chorus girls. The rest of the ensemble including John Bixler, Sebastian Gerstner, Keith Kalinowski, and Nicola Troschinetz are superb, too.

42nd Street includes many enduring songs and dance routines. Moan leads off a lively production of "Lullaby of Broadway"; Gerstner, Martin, and McGuire lead a great production of "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," which includes a Pullman sleeping car with scantily dressed chorus girls; and McGuire leads the chorus girls in a performance of "We’re In the Money."

R. MacKenzie Lewis leads an excellent band. Warren’s music is broad, fast, and memorable.

Sarah Tanner’s set design works with the stage she has. Rear screen projections are simple flat but with colorful renderings of the 1930s architecture, street scenes, and backstage. 

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently the managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

"42nd Street" will continue Thursday-Sundays to June 25 at the Encore Theatre Company, 7714 Ann Arbor St., Dexter. Tickets are available theencoretheatre.org, by calling 734-268-6200, or in person at the theater, 10 am to 2 pm, Tuesday through Friday. Click here to download the show's program (PDF).