Despite their individual marvels, as a whole the Wick Theatre’s first two productions, “The Sound of Music” and “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” were flawed shows, the patchy growing pains of a company discovering its identity. It surely found it in the Harry Warren/Al Dubin chestnut “42nd Street,” in a production that is precise and exciting, lavish and intimate, funny and moving— perhaps surprisingly so, considering the creakily familiar source material.
Based on the 1933 Busby Berkeley film, and a novel that preceded that, the stage version of “42nd Street” may have premiered in 1980, but its heart remained in Depression-era entertainment, where audiences craved the glossy escapism and wish fulfillment of showbiz myth. “42nd Street” is/was one of the many shows about show business, and you’ll recognize its dusty old archetypes: Julian Marsh, the exacting Broadway impresario (Jim Ballard); Dorothy Brock, the stage diva who didn’t make it to the top because of her talent (Aaron Bower); and of course Peggy Sawyer, the ingénue chasing a dream on the Great White Way (Julie Kleiner). Toss in the chirping chorus girls, comic gangsters and dancing waiters, and no cliché is left unexplored.
What’s astonishing is the clash of retro fidelity and contemporary style with which director Norb Joerder infuses this material. Along with the extraordinary choreography by Ron Hutchins and endless parade of dazzling costumes by Kimberly Wick and Costume World, he makes the old feel new again. Sit back and savor the Act One show-stopper “We’re in the Money,” a comfortable standard reimagined with color-coded inspiration: In front of a lime-colored backdrop of Wall Street, the dancers don sequined ensembles the hue of freshly minted greenbacks and hoof atop platforms shaped like giant mercury dimes.
Later, in the show’s piece de resistance, the “Forty-Second Street Ballet,” Kleiner and her love interest, played by Alex Jorth, bring the rest of the cast to a breathtaking halt with what can only be called a mating dance—perhaps the sultriest tap number I’ve ever seen, something that would never have passed those persnickety censors in Berkeley’s era.
There’s a lot going on in “42nd Street,” whose musical numbers are as stuffed as the story is thin. The show is busy but moves with liquid fluidity, and the stage never feels cluttered, which is an achievement considering the number of scenes featuring some 20 actors onstage (the cast includes two dozen).
The acting is solid to exceptional across the board, with Ballard wearing his role as the smooth director of the show-within-the-show like a comfortable suit, especially one with pinstripes and/or tails. Bower—dolled up, to my eyes, to resemble Marlene Dietrich—has the challenge of downplaying her own talent by inhabiting the heels of a mediocre dancer; she accomplishes this with humor and humility, and when her grievances burst forth, they feel authentic.
In the end, though, it’s Kleiner’s show. She makes for a delightful starlet in the making, with eyes drawn to her every move. Her comic timing is always, to modify one of the show’s lyrics, right on the money, and her tap skills are second to none.
OK, so the music is still piped in, and we all wish the Wick used live orchestration. But good luck finding any other gripes with this imaginative mounting, which should go down in local theater lore as the musical that put the Wick on the map.
"42nd Street" runs through Feb. 16 at the Wick Theatre, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Tickets start at $58. Call 561/995-2223 or visit www.thewick.org.