The beat of dancing feet

42nd Street (Queensland Conservatorium)

Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University

August 4 – 13

Based on the 1932 novel by Bradford Ropes and the subsequent 1933 Hollywood film adaptation, “42nd Street” is a musical set at the height of the Great Depression. Audiences at Queensland Conservatorium’s production are taken to the era immediately thanks to gramophone crackling pre-show tunes and projection of a black and white image of New York’s art deco’d skyscraper skyline.

In the 1930s, just as it is now, 42nd Street was known for its theatres, and is where chorus dancers want to be, especially once they hear that notorious director Julien Marsh (Aidan O’Cleirigh) is putting on a new show, which is sure to be the hit of 1933. The opening audition scene’s base tone aesthetic suits the era and enables Keith Clark’s lighting design to brighten the entrance of plucky Peggy Sawyer (Katie Loxston), fresh off the bus from Allentown Pennsylvania, lucky scarf and all. Wholesome at heart and hard not to love, she is everything we want from a protagonist. The star of “Pretty Lady”, however, is the less likeable and very demanding Dorothy Brock (Lucy Goodrick), a past-her-prime prima donna, renowned for inability to dance.

Dancing is at the core of the story and experience of the tap-infused extravaganza and, appropriately, when things open to the synchronised rhythm of a tap-dancing chorus scene, it is met with deserving applause. The show is filled with glorious spectacles thanks to its big ensemble numbers. Act One’s closer, ‘We’re in the Money’ is a lively glittering green number that not only showcases the talent of everyone on stage, but captures the essence of the show as a whole in terms of its good old fashioned song and dance.

Dan Venz’s choreography makes full use of the vast Queensland Conservatorium stage space to fill it with the production’s large ensemble cast. ‘Getting out of Town’, when the show-within-a-show’s cast departs for a run in Philadelphia, sees circa 50 performers in a tightly-timed and highly energetic number. And when leading tenor Billy Lawler (Hudson Glynn) sings of the beautiful dames you go to see a show for, it is as part of a gorgeous MGM musical style number, of extravagant Busby Berkeley type flowing-gowned, dancing-girl geometric patterns, with an art deco touch to the details of its design aesthetic. Highlights are peppered throughout the production, including in Act One’s ‘Shadow Waltz’, when, during Dorothy’s audition song key check, shadows are made by wheeled lamps. It’s a sublimely executed number that emphasises the calibre of the production.

All aspects of this “42nd Street” are on point, from both cast and creatives alike. Vintage pin-curled hair combines with high-waisted pants and suspenders to authentically replicate its early 1930s setting (costume and set design by Penny Challen). Scene transitions are swift and feature simple but highly-effective set pieces of abstract angles and art deco design touches, such as in the theatre’s star dressing room and when a shop-front window descends to border the diner lunch of co-writer and producer Maggie (Jacqui Dwyer) and the chorus girls offering advice to Peggy.

Confident, assured performances capture the spirit of the show’s era and also the grand musical genre. Glynn impresses with some lithe dance moves and Loxston capture the range of emotions experienced by Peggy in rise from role as chorus girl to leading lady, especially her increasing exhaustion in response to relentless rehearsal to realise her potential in her ultimate role. O’Cleirigh gives us a layered performance as Julien, the driving force behind Peggy’s transformation, elevating a role that could so easily have been one-note. And his strong voice makes his numbers some of Act Two’s highlights.

Dwyer is another standout as thewisecracking Maggie, stealing scenes, especially in duo with Jack Ingram as the other “Pretty Lady” writer Bert. Her comic timing is spot-on and her vocals are impressive.Ingram, meanwhile, makes the somewhat superfluous ‘Shuffle Off to Buffalo’ number about going by sleeper train to Niagara for a honeymoon, charmingly entertaining thanks to the commitment of his highly animated tongue-in-cheek, vaudevillean-esque performance, which elevates the relatively simple song to a standout production number.

The Tony and Olivier Award winning musical’s story may be a simple one, but its realisation is coloured by its toe-tapping musical numbers thanks to the production’s quality orchestrations. Under Heidi Loveland’s musical direction, the orchestra finds character within each of its songs, giving its iconic titular number a sauntering sound and cresendoing ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ to breathtaking heights. And under Alister Smith’s slick direction, it is all very clever in its meta-theatre aspects, including in nods to the orchestra and raise of house lights into intermission when the show-within-the-show’s star is injured and the “Pretty Lady” performance has to be cut short.

With popular musical theatre standards (lyrics by Al Dubin and Johnny Mercer and music by Harry Warren) and show-stopping ensemble production numbers, there is much to love about Queensland Conservatorium’s “42nd Street”. Indeed, this is a massive, but also incredibly professional production at every level. Though the backstage musical may be set in depression-era New York, its iconic characters, classic plot lines and extravagant show-within-a-show make its 2022 experience one of pure entertainment for everyone coming to meet those dancing feet.

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