March 23, 2006

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A 42nd Street detour
Palace hits and misses with ensemble musical
By Robert Greene rgreene@hippopress.com

Jerry Orbach, star of Law & Order and Broadway musical veteran (he also put Baby in the corner in Dirty Dancing), is not rolling in his grave but he might be wincing a little.

Orbach, who died last year, played the part of big-time director Julian March when 42nd Street opened on Broadway back in 1980. Last weekend, the Palace Theatre took a stab at the hit show — with mixed results.

It’s a huge show, with upward of 60 dancers on stage for the opening number. Directed and choreographed by Carl Rajotte, the show was cast in New York and features numerous Palace regulars, along with students from local dance studios filling shoes in the opening number.

42nd Street tells the story of Peggy Sawyer, a talented newbie hoofer from Allenstown, Pa. She catches a bus to New York City and blunders into a chorus role in Pretty Lady, a song-and-dance show directed by Julian Marsh. Marsh lost a bundle in the stock market crash and really needs a hit. Leading lady-wise, Marsh is saddled with an aging diva whose sugar daddy happens to be bankrolling the production. The diva, Dorothy Brock, is a pro with a great voice and no dancing skills who might upset the whole applecart by spending time with her on-the-side lover. Then, Peggy blunders again (perhaps) and ends up with Brock’s role and the weight of the entire show on her untested shoulders.

The Palace version of 42nd Street looks great. The scenery and lighting are effective and the costuming is spot-on, for the most part. The orchestra is also a hit, keeping up with the action quite well under the direction of Julie Oliver.

But the problem with a big ensemble show like 42nd Street is that the whole ensemble has to be wow-making, and while there are bright spots among the cast they stand out a little too much from the rest. 42nd Street is a dance-heavy musical and, as such, requires top-notch dancing from the players. Absent such skills, the choreography must be “dumbed down” to the level of the actors in the show. The dumb down is done well and fun to watch, but there were still too many mistakes on the part of the dancers.

Bright spots include Kevin Collins who, as Julian Marsh, seems to be effectively channeling Palace head Peter Ramsey — so much so that I was continually surprised that he had hair. Palace newcomer Julie Pappas-Smith, playing Brock, is the only Equity actor in the show. She has great presence but her performance misses the mark, transforming the richness of a scared, jealous, desperate aging diva into a one-note harpy. Michelle Rajotte, as Peggy Sawyer, seems invisible in the first act but comes into her own — along with her character — in the second. Stuart Harmon, great in last year’s Footloose as the Rev. Shaw, plays Brock’s meal ticket, Abner Dillon. It’s a character of few lines but Harmon uses his height and presence to keep your attention.

Not as good as last year’s stellar Chicago but better than Footloose, 42nd Street at the Palace is a safe bet for a fun night out. But it’s not Broadway, or even Broadway’s little sister. Maybe it’s its second cousin.

42nd Street runs at the Palace Theatre, Manchester, 7:30 p.m. March 24-26 and 2 p.m. March 26. Tickets are $20-$40. Call 668-5588.


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