The first image of Davidson Community Players’ “42nd Street” tells you what you need to know: Four dozen feet, visible from toes to knees, tap in furious unison, while the curtain slowly rises at Duke Family Performance Hall. The show has leading actors and actresses, but the star remains this peppy, well-drilled, indefatigable chorus of dancers.
It was ever thus, from the 1933 Warner Bros. movie through the 1980 Broadway musical based on it to a long-running 2001 Broadway revival. The first made Ruby Keeler a household name as Peggy Sawyer, the chorus girl who takes over the main role in a teetering show. The second capped an illustrious musical career for Jerry Orbach, who played director Julian Marsh. The third won Christine Ebersole a Tony as Dorothy Brock, the egomaniac who yields her part to Peggy.
But the chorus dominates this piece, singing most of the great Harry Warren-Al Dubin songs (or parts of them) and tapping, tapping, tapping the night away. Director Melissa Ohlman-Roberge and choreographer Emily Hunter keep them front and center, literally and metaphorically, and they shine.
The show’s all about action: Marsh (Kevin Roberge) has been hired to direct a new musical, “Pretty Lady,” with the aging Brock and young tenor Billy Lawlor (Jeremiah Alsop) as his leads. Brock gets injured, and Sawyer steps in to save “Pretty Lady.” Folderol about gangsters and errant boyfriends amounts to little. As Billy sings in “Dames,” “Who cares if there’s a plot or not/When they’ve got a lot of dames?”
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Duke Family Performance Hall gives the players plenty of room, and the director uses the theater as if it were the one where Marsh is working.
Characters disappear not only into the wings but off the front of the stage, where we watch them go. Brock’s character descended to the orchestra pit, and the chorus dispersed up the aisles once.
Parts of Anna Sartin’s set come down from the fly space or on from the wings in front of our eyes.
The reliable Roberge is giving a lifelike performance too small for a larger-than-life character. Marsh is part con man, part salesman, part hypnotist and part puppeteer. We have to feel he makes Peggy great, rather than discovering her greatness; on opening night, Roberge hadn’t worked himself up to that obsessive height.
Amy McKay and Sierra Key balance each other well as Brock and Sawyer. Their real lives mirror their characters: McKay’s a veteran with a warm, attractive voice and serene stage presence, while Key is a recent high school graduate with flying feet, endless energy and more of a classic belter’s style.
The callow Alsop and mellow Lori Ann Sword (who plays a canny, calm composer) support them well.