It is a great feat, indeed, to offer a revival of a show that matches and occasionally surpasses the original production, especially when the memory of the original is still reasonably fresh in theatergoers' minds. After all, David Merrick's 42nd Street opened in 1980 and ran for eight-and-a-half years (3,486 performances). For the 42nd Street now playing at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, the fact that a large percentage of the audience can vividly recall the original is a double-edged sword. Familiarity with the first production and warm feelings about it are great for marketing purposes, but those same feelings could have sunk the new staging if it didn't measure up. The revival has an excitement all its own--and some flaws that are all its own, as well--but the overall experience is thrilling as it offers dynamic dance, a bevy of great songs, several exceptional performances, and a sweet sense of theatrical nostalgia.

Of course, everybody remembers the 1933 movie 42nd Street, although few may realize that both the film and Broadway show are based on a Bradford Ropes novel. (Bradford who?) Be that as it may, the film remains the best version of the story, largely because it had the courage to present Broadway director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) as a desperate, dying man. The musical stage version doesn't want to go there; its Julian Marsh (Michael Cumpsty in the revival) is just a cash-starved impresario with a Times Square-sized ego. Where the film ends with Marsh exhausted and alone in an alley next to the theater, the stage musical ends with the promise of a romance between Marsh and young Peggy Sawyer. It would appear that modern audiences (or modern producers) require happier endings than their counterparts in the worst depths of the Depression. Scary thought!

The Broadway musical 42nd Street is a sweeter, more benign version of the movie; but for all its added songs, modified dances, and script changes, the revival is essentially the same in tone and intent as the production that opened at the Winter Garden theater 21 years ago. If anything, the 2001 42nd Street is even more self-aware than the original, which was directed by Gower Champion: It opens with the curtain rising just high enough to reveal the lower limbs of a line of hard-driving tap dancers, their precise steps pounding out a beat that matches the rat-a-tat-tat of our hearts as we thrill to this audacious beginning. Then the curtain rises all the way up and--well, if we're not transported back to 1933, we are at least on the real 42nd Street, where the Ford Center is prominently located. And we are listening to the music of Harry Warren and the lyrics of Al Dubin, which ain't bad. (Any movie fan worth his or her popcorn salt will recognize that some of the songs in the show were first heard in Warren & Dubin-scored films other than 42nd Street, but let's not quibble.)

The revival has plenty of energy and an eagerness to please; unfortunately, the casting of the major leads is uneven, and that undercuts the show's impact. While the aforementioned Michael Cumpsty certainly has a commanding speaking voice and an undeniable physical presence, he doesn't sing very well--and he has to belt out the show's big finale. Let's just say that he's no Jerry Orbach. Then there's Peggy Sawyer; we're supposed to believe that the character is a great talent, a sure-shot for stardom once she's given her big chance. Kate Levering is, at best, a modest singer-actress. And, though she is a very fine dancer from a technical standpoint, there is no character in her steps.

On the plus side, Christine Ebersole is deliciously nasty as Dorothy Brock, the would-be star of the show-within-the-show Pretty Lady, who breaks her ankle and thereby paves the way for Sawyer's triumph. Ebersole can really act and sing, and even her dancing in what is basically a non-dancing role is passable. The discovery of the show, however, is David Elder in the Lee Roy Reams/Dick Powell role of Billy Lawlor. A lean, good-looking fellow, Elder's got a soaring, distinctive tenor voice. He's an equally talented dancer, and he acts the role with real flair. For lack of a better description, let's call him the Scott Wise of the new generation.

Among the other featured players, only Mary Testa truly stands out as one of Pretty Lady's writer/producers. Funny and brassy, Testa seems to have musical comedy running through her veins. Jonathan Freeman doesn't quite have enough to do as her partner, and the same goes for Roger Muenz, Allen Fitzpatrick, Billy Stritch, and Michael Arnold in even smaller roles. Let's face it: When you add in the massive chorus, this show has a huge cast that can seem rather faceless at times.

Mylinda Hull and female ensemble in 42nd Street(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Mylinda Hull and female ensemble in 42nd Street
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The musical runs smoothly through the first act, but there are some dubious plot elements in the second. For instance, Peggy Sawyer seems like Eve Harrington's cousin when she causes Dorothy Brock's broken ankle; at the performance we attended, it really looked as if the youngster went out of her way to smash into the star! Aren't we supposed to like this "innocent" kid? Even less likely is the clamor among the chorus for Sawyer to replace the injured Brock. Finally, there's the "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" number, staged with pairs of women in the various compartments of the train's honeymoon car. Is this a special lesbian train? Just wondering.

While it doesn't take a brain surgeon to "get" 42nd Street, it's probably almost as difficult as brain surgery to put it on. In addition to recreating Gower Champion's exciting direction, Mark Bramble (who co-wrote the book of the musical with the late Michael Stewart) has effectively added new material, and Randy Skinner has contributed exuberant new choreography that meshes beautifully with the old. Douglas W. Schmidt's sets are gaudy fun, as are Roger Kirk's colorful costumes.

42nd Street goes out there a revival, but it has to come back a hit. And it does. When you add up all the dancing feet, the wonderful songs, and the famous movie dialogue, this new edition of the show--despite its stumbles--is good, old-fashioned fun.