The fascinating thing about Broadway, the 1926 play by George Abbott and Philip Dunning, is that's it's inarguably a seminal piece of theater and yet it is very rarely produced. (The original production was one of the biggest Broadway hits of the 1920s but a 1987 revival lasted only seven performances -- including three previews.) If you ever do get a chance to see the play staged, as I just did in Pittsburgh of all places, you'll marvel at how much it influenced hundreds of subsequent plays, musicals, and films -- everything from 42nd Street to the gangster movies of the '30s to Guys and Dolls to Victor/Victoria. But it's an odd experience to encounter Broadway only after becoming familiar with everything that followed it. Try to imagine that you grew up on the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein et al., then saw Show Boat for the first time in your adulthood, and you'll have a good idea of what I mean.
Broadway might as well be subtitled "A Manhattan Melodrama." Set in a room situated directly off stage at the Paradise Night Club, the play concerns the efforts of hoofer Roy Lane to hook up romantically with chorine Billie Moore, with whom he has worked up an act. The problem is that Billie has attracted the attentions of Steve Crandall, a rich man-about-town who supposedly made his money in Florida real estate but is actually a bootlegger with henchmen Dolph and Porky in tow. Various sorts of trouble -- including murder -- result from Crandall's attempts to expand his operations to Harlem and thereby muscle in on the territory of another bootlegger, Scar Edwards. The play's dialogue is as colorful as the character names, peppered with such '20s slang terms as "sap" (for "fool") and "bulls" (for "cops"). And in a delightful bit of foreshadowing of a later George Abbott show, Roy encourages Billie to do her best with "On your toes, baby!"
The best thing about the excellent Pittsburgh Public Theater production of Broadway is the direction of Ted Pappas, who is also the company's artistic and executive director. In a note in the PPT newsletter, Pappas explains that the show is pointedly being billed as Broadway: The Play "so people would know that it's not a musical." Be that as it may, he was wise enough to direct the production as if it were a sharp, snazzy, '20s tuner; the pace never slackens for a moment, and the actors' timing is spot-on. (The running time is two hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission.)
The cast is uniformly strong. Though John Scherer is a little too old to be an ideal Roy, he has the style of the period down pat, and it's great to have a true dancer in the role. Kathleen Early is so wonderful as Billie that it's hard to believe this is the same actress who appeared to much poorer advantage as Girl in Edward Albee's The Play About the Baby Off-Broadway. Ted Koch is dangerously attractive as Crandall. In supporting roles, jewel-like characterizations are offered by Brooks Almy as Lil, Ruth Gottschall as Ruby, Jonathan Hammond as Dan McCorn (the "bull"), Billy Hartung as Scar Edwards, John Sierros as Porky, Daniel Krell as Dolph, and Larry John Meyers as Nick Verdis. (All told, there are 16 people in the cast -- and that's undoubtedly a major reason why revivals of Broadway are so few and far between.)
A cute running gag in the show is that we see Roy and the Paradise chorines in a variety of borderline tasteless, vaudeville-type costumes as they dance on and off stage -- everything from pirate garb to Spanish duds to tropical island get-ups complete with grass skirts. Costume designer David R. Zyla has really gone to town here; he probably had as much fun coming up with this stuff as the cast has wearing it. Equally superb are the other production elements: James Noone's scenic design, Dennis Parichy's lighting, and sound designer Zach Moore's selection of fabulous old recordings to play at various points in the show and during the exhilarating, choreographed curtain call. The Pittsburgh Public Theater production of Broadway is exemplary from its first moments to its last.
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