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'42nd Street' dates back to an age of musical innocence

Japanese theatergoers took the cast and crew of "42nd Street" by surprise. Before the 2004 road production of the classic musical started a five-week tour of Japan, the actors heard warnings that local audiences were on the reserved side.

A performance of 42nd Street

Japanese theatergoers took the cast and crew of "42nd Street" by surprise. Before the 2004 road production of the classic musical started a five-week tour of Japan, the actors heard warnings that local audiences were on the reserved side.

"We thought it would be a difficult crowd to please, very conservative," says associate director and company manager T.J. Young. "We thought if we got any applause, we'd be lucky."

They didn't just get applause. They got rock star treatment: throngs rushing their buses after shows, fans pleading for autographs, and a bevy of groupies trailing the show from city to city.

This quintessential American dream parable, which hits the Fargodome on Monday, clearly resonated with overseas audiences. But what some critics find mystifying is that the story, about a small-town girl turned major star, still draws U.S. viewers some 70 years after it was born.

Often labeled corny and banal, the musical is testimony to the staying power of a simple, earnest feel-good tale - and the universal appeal of unhinged, lavish tap dancing.


Million-dollar 'Baby'

The musical started out as a 1933 Academy Award-nominated movie, which saved Warner Bros. from bankruptcy at the height of the Depression.

In the film, larger-than-life director Julian Marsh casts snooty fading diva Dorothy Brock as the lead in his musical "Pretty Baby." But when Brock breaks an ankle during rehearsals, the ingénue Peggy Sawyer is whisked out of the chorus line and into the starring role in a last-minute gamble.

In 1980, the story morphed into a Broadway musical and scored Tony Awards for choreography and best musical. The 2001 remake, a best musical revival Tony Award winner, introduced some new songs and fresh choreography, but for the most part didn't tamper with the story.

The creators of this latest production tweaked the Brock character, from a diva past her prime to a self-centered star stuck in the past. The era of the dancing musical has arrived, but she can't get into the swing of it, clumsily crashing into boogieing extras during rehearsal.

"She's been a star all her life, and now suddenly, she's obsolete," says Natalie Buster, who plays Brock. The reason for the makeover? At 31, Buster is not believable as an aging actress.

But besides that minor adjustment and a touched-up score that's faster-paced, jazzier at times, this production stays faithful to the 2001 revival, and the rags-to-riches story remains intact.

"Obviously, it was kind of good the way it was," Young says.


Addicted to optimism

When the 2001 revival opened, some critics suggested the show might be up for a thematic update.

The original story was geared toward Depression-era audiences who craved overnight success stories as an antidote to the age's bleak outlook. But would today's savvier audience stay receptive?

The show's Japanese success highlighted the universality of the story across continents and ages. Audiences laughed at all the jokes, often before the actors had a chance to crack them. (The subtitles projected on side panels moved at a slightly faster pace than the action on stage.)

"It was interesting to hold for laughs when we usually wouldn't have to," says Buster.

But Young says American audiences have gobbled up the show, too. On the heels of more cynical Broadway musicals - in "The Producers," the protagonists stage a flop to pocket more cash - theater audiences might long for the innocence and naiveté of Old School spectacle.

"Especially with what our country is going through, with the war and everything, to have that wholesomeness and belief that something good will happen at the end of the day, that's really wonderful," Buster says.

But the key to the show's resilience might well be in the eye-popping dance numbers, the glamorous costumes and the catchy tunes, from "Lullaby of Broadway" to "I Only Have Eyes for You." Says Buster, "It's absolutely amazing to see 30 dancers on stage dancing all at the same time, and the amount of energy they throw at the audience is really something to behold."


Readers can reach Forum reporter

Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

If you go

What: "42nd Street"

When: 7:30 p.m. Monday

Where: Fargodome's Gate City Bank Theatre

Info: Tickets are $30, $40 and $50. (701) 235-7171

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