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REVIEW: Belmont company turns a flawed book to a soaring spectacle in joyous run of ‘42nd Street’

Updated: Apr 22, 2022

It’s hard to imagine a more fitting venue than the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Belmont University for the school’s production of “42nd Street,” the 1980 megahit musical.

Bearing witness to only a few student productions, the stunning $180 million colossus, which opened its doors in the fall of 2021, serves as a cathedral of sorts for the performing arts — namely music and dance.

That’s precisely what Belmont’s “42nd Street,” with its big, brassy score and larger-than-life dancing, accomplished.

“42nd Street” is, at its core, a vehicle for an evening of entertainment that makes you feel as though you’re at the opening night of a Cole Porter or Irving Berlin musical, thanks to its impressive dance numbers, large chorus and an orchestration that sounds like it came straight out of the 1930s.

Though a handful of the songs (music Harry Warren, lyrics Al Dubin) originated in the eponymous 1933 film, including the title song, the musical, which opened on Broadway in 1980, feels more like a pastiche than an actual period piece. That feeling serves the piece well.

If that feeling and the excitement of watching large ensemble dances—something that, these days, is a musical theater rarity—is worth the price of admission to you, then you likely thoroughly enjoyed Belmont’s production of “42nd Street.”

Its cast — led by Caroline Eiseman, Darian Goulding and Katie Yeoman at Sunday’s performance — was superb, as tends to be the case for Belmont’s musical theater productions.

Eiseman played the “I want this so badly but I’m probably not good enough” persona of Peggy Sawyer to a T. Yeomans was almost entirely unlikable as Dorothy Brock, a completely fitting portrayal of the snide prima donna.

The only weakness, if you could call it that, in Goulding’s performance as director and producer Julian Marsh is that Marsh doesn’t sing until the second act. That’s a 90-minute wait until audiences can hear Goulding’s glistening lyric baritone, which will likely very soon emanate from a Broadway stage rather than a college one.

When Goulding did finally get to sing in “Lullaby of Broadway” and again in the reprise of the title song, his soaring voice made the long wait worthwhile.

The fleet-footed David Perry also stood out with his portrayal of the choreographer Andy Lee.

Arguably, however, the true star of Belmont’s “42nd Street” was director David Shamburger’s chorus, led by dance captain Ariel Gray, Delaney Jackson and Elayna Sirrine.

In addition to nailing the lengthy and physically demanding dance routines called for by “42nd Street,” the chorus members truly understood how to play the exaggerated caricatures written in Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble’s simplistic libretto.

The problem with “42nd Street” as a piece, though, is that most of the music and dances, though impressive, exist merely as window dressing to cover a story that is both uninteresting and unbelievable.

Several moments in the story fall apart when you consider them with even a hint of logic.

Why does the consistently bitter Brock suddenly become a saint after sustaining an ankle injury that cost her a job, and why is her newfound kindness most directly pointed at the person whose dancing error caused the injury?

Why, less than two minutes after learning that the show-within-a-show “Pretty Lady” is being canned, does the entire chorus — completely devastated mere moments ago — gather to sing “There’s a Sunny Side to Every Situation,” an optimistic though unclever 32-bar song about finding good in the bad.

Why in the world does Marsh arrive in Sawyer’s dressing room and start making out with her before the opening of “Pretty Lady?”

And, for goodness’ sake, can someone please explain what “Pretty Lady” is even about?

The flaws within Stewart and Bramble’s banal book, along with the fact that the score is essentially just a dozen or so diegetic songs from “Pretty Lady” with virtually no substance, require productions of “42nd Street” to be big and, at times, over the top.

That, more than anything, is what Belmont totally and completely nailed, and it’s a tribute to Nancy Allen, the school’s coordinator of musical theater.

Allen and company chose Belmont’s biggest and most ornate venue, the 1,700-seat Fisher Center, for the production.

They assembled a cast of over 20 and a 15-piece orchestra, which was brilliantly conducted by Jo Lynn Burks.

The production’s scenic design, originally used by the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine, would be best described as large and eye-popping — the Broad Street Station, where Marsh convinces Sawyer to re-join his company after firing her earlier, was an especially stunning set.

Most importantly, the lovely dance numbers — with tapping that rivaled a professional dance company — were gargantuan.

“42nd Street” isn’t a theater piece so much as it’s an entertainment piece, but it never really purports to be theater.

Rather, “42nd Street” purports to be an evening of grand gestures featuring some of the best elements of the musical theater art form. It exists, to use a Stephen Sondheim quote, “in the service of joy.”

In that, Belmont’s “42nd Street” succeeded.

PHOTO: The cast of “42nd Street” onstage at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts. Sam Simpkins / Belmont University

This review was written by Luke Worsham.

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