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Theatre Review: You’ll be Tapping in Your Seats

Upper Darby Summer Stage presents the classic 42nd Street for their 43rd Mainstage production this summer, one of the greatest tap musicals of all time.  As show runner Julian Marsh (played by Chris Monaco) puts it “Think of musical comedy, the most glorious words in the English Language!” The musical is a timeless show-within-a-show model that takes place just after the stock market crash when Broadway hoofers across the city are begging for anyone to put up another show so they can work again, and Julian Marsh is attempting to do just that with a new variety show called “Pretty Lady.” This production is directed by Summer Stage alum, Brian Walsh, with choreography by fellow SS alums, Kevin Dietzler and Devon Sinclair, and music direction by Gina Giachero.

Before the preview performance on Wednesday night, the production staff spoke with the audience and gave a few insights into the enormous task that was putting up a show involving non-stop production numbers with a cast of approximately 65 18-28 year olds.  Dietzler and Sinclair told us that it would have been impossible to put on the show within the time they had, (rehearsals didn’t start until the first week of June), with only one choreographer and they handled the challenge by splitting up the choreography between the tap numbers by Dietzler and the non-tap/more balletic numbers by Sinclair.  Watching the show, you can see how the two choreographer’s styles are different but complement each other nicely and form a cohesive show.  What struck me most was how well both choreographers found ways to make each ensemble member, of varying levels of dance capabilities, have their moments in the spotlight instead of continuously featuring the most capable dancers while having the rest of the ensemble do step touches in the background.  With a cast of this size, it can be easy to lose people in the sea of dancers but the choreography highlights each ensemble member at one moment or another, making it sure that the audience gets to see each one of them.  Both of these men also did a superb job of incorporating physical comedy into their choreography, with slap-stick rehearsal-gone-wrong moments that are just right and will keep the audience laughing throughout.

The most difficult choreography is reserved for leads Peggy Sawyer (Meghan Dietzler) and Billy Lawler (Danny Walsh), as well as a core group of featured dancers.  Ms. Dietzler absolutely shines as new-comer Sawyer who starts out the show just trying to get into the chorus of her first Broadway show and emerges as a star on the rise.  Her crisp tap sounds are the best of all the tappers in the cast and her sing-song voice is perfect for the part.  The reason that she shines the brightest, however, is her outstanding comedic timing.  Peggy Sawyer is the heart of 42nd Street, and Ms. Dietzler carries the show with ease.  The only thing that took away from her performance was the fact that her wig hides her entire profile such that any time she has to turn to her left for dialogue, the audience completely loses her face, which is a shame because her face is so expressive.  Her counterpart, Danny Walsh, is equally excellent as tenor Lawler.  His singing voice is smooth and rich, while his acting is full of the charm that that character requires.  He also shows off impressive tap skills of his own, highlighted especially in “We’re in the Money,” which was my favorite number of the entire show.

Director Brian Walsh did an outstanding job of keeping the story moving from one big number to the next without much of a lull from scene to scene.  He told the audience that, while the musical itself is mainly a light-hearted dance heavy comedy, he did want to keep the theme that these were desperate times, especially for those in the entertainment business, in the background.  The most direct way that Walsh accomplished this was through his casting of Rachel Medori as the “star on her way out” Dorothy Brock.  Medori’s Brock is less diva-esque as other Brocks I’ve seen in the past and more vulnerable and desperate for happiness.  She gives just the right amount of prima donna to the character while also making the audience feel for her. Medori, who has the largest singing part of the entire cast, has a fabulous voice which is featured in slower numbers like “I Know Now,” and “About a Quarter to Nine,” amidst the otherwise dance-centric show.

There were several other standouts throughout the show, which is filled with a plethora of character parts.  Sarah DeNight plays writer Maggie Jones, and she steals every scene she’s in with her physical comedy and strong vocals.  She is sure to be an audience favorite.  Three of the female characters in the chorus, Anytime Annie (Elizabeth Frawley), Phyllis Dale (Gabrielle Impriano), and Lorraine Flemming (Maria Byers) show off their superior hoofing skills and comedy while featured especially in numbers “Go Into Your Dance,” and “We’re in the Money.”  These three actors have great chemistry together and they carry a lot of the chorus numbers throughout.  The female ensemble members outnumber the males by what appears to be a ratio of 3 to 1 and both choreographers do a great job of interchanging the females to balance out all of the numbers.  Since there are so few males comparatively, there are 7 male dancers, Tommy Bennett, Jason Severin, Jack Denman, William Daniels, Anthony Flamminio, Bryant Carter, and Jake Muldoon, who are in every single number and deserve a shout-out.  They must be exhausted by the end of the show but they never show it and their dance abilities never falter throughout all of their challenging choreography.

This production includes a live orchestra, although they cannot be seen by the audience, under the music direction and conduction of Giachero.  The orchestra has a truly professional sound and fills out the show.  Costume Designer, Julia Poiesz, had her work cut out for her with this show which included over 300 costumes with the average cast member having 5-7 different costume changes.  She and her team handled the massive undertaking by designing some costumes from scratch, including a lovely gold wide-legged pantsuit for Medori’s Dorothy Brock which was absolutely perfect, while purchasing pieces and adding to them to make them period appropriate, as well as renting some other pieces from Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre and Arden Theatre Company.  The set, designed by Martin Dallago, was of a theatre proscenium with pieces that fold in and out, making the transitions quick and seamless, allowing the audience to stay in the moment of the show without the distractions of a time-consuming set change between scenes.  The set also allowed for the iconic opening of the show; lifting the curtain just enough to reveal only the feet of the tappers for the first few eight counts of the audition scene, which was something that Director Walsh insisted upon and rightfully so.

The show runs July 27 & 28, August 3 & 4 at 7:30 p.m., and August 4 at 1:30 p.m. at the Upper Darby Performing Arts Center in Drexel Hill.  Tickets are just $14-$17, which is an absolute steal to see a production of this quality!  This production is a must see for anyone who enjoys a classic Broadway tap show!

All photos by Cate R. Paxson

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