While times are hard in different ways now, we still enjoy a good, celebratory underdog-makes-it-big musical, especially if it's accompanied by familiar songs and impressive dancing. Back in 1980, Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble drew on several rags-to-riches movies of the 1930s to create 42nd Street, which has become the mother of all backstage musicals. It spotlights the story of Peggy Sawyer, the fresh-faced ing & eacute;nue from Allentown, Pa., who overcomes obstacles just to get a part and then to land the starring role in Pretty Lady (the musical within a musical in 42nd Street). One of those obstacles is Dorothy Brock, the diva who's scored the featured role in Pretty Lady mostly because she's bossy and has a rich boyfriend.
Natalie Buster has been playing Dorothy on the national tour of 42nd Street for the last year and a half. When I spoke to her by phone from Columbus, Ohio, she made it clear that hers would be a Dorothy with a twist.
Buster reports that "When Mark Bramble -- the director of the Broadway revival -- cast me, he said, 'Let's not make her old like in all the other versions.' [In 1980 and 2001, respectively, Tammy Grimes and Christine Ebersole had both played Brock as a matron.] So we decided to play her my age, early thirties. It's not that she's a diva who's past her prime. It's that it's the Depression, and the new fashion is for dance-centric musicals -- but she can't dance. So we changed a couple of lines. Now it's not that she's old but that she can't dance. You know -- 'Put her in the middle and we can have the girls dance around her,' that kind of thing."
Julie Powell, who played the role in the July 2004 production at Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre, remembers well how difficult Dorothy can be to play: "The pitfall, from my perspective," says Powell, "is that it's hard to be good enough that people still want to watch you in the songs and dances -- for some reason, deliberately bad or melodramatic acting appeals more, people think it's funny -- but not really that good, because the audience is supposed to be relieved when [Dorothy is] sent out to pasture."
So Dorothy has to be unlikable, but not too unlikable. Over the phone, Buster certainly seems like a very nice woman. Asked if she were still in touch with her inner diva, she laughs and says, "Well, I do try to channel her from time to time. Dorothy can be pretty mean. So I make a point of being nice to people offstage.
"But I like that she always has a heart of gold," says Buster. "She's a survivor -- she's playing for incredibly high stakes. She's definitely bitchy -- kind of like Cruella de Vil at first. She has no time for Julian [Marsh, the director], and she's horrible to Peggy and the dancers. But when her scene with Pat Denning [her long-lost love] comes around, we see that she does have a soul. She's awfully human."
But the details of dramatic characterization aren't what draw audiences to a song-and-dance spectacular like 42nd Street. "It depends on what the audience comes for," says Buster. "If they come to see the dancing -- hey, I've done a lot of character work, put a lot of work into my acting, but let's be honest: When I'm up there alone, it's a chance for the dancers to change. Every time I'm onstage, they're really scrambling backstage into new costumes. After 'We're in the Money,' they all rush off, and I sing just a little part, and then they're back on. It's funny to think of me singing, and there's all this chaos going on just one curtain away."
The dance designs carry on much of the tradition from the recent Broadway revival, Buster says. "'The Lullaby of Broadway' is very close to [Gower Champion's] choreography from 1980." The rest of this show's dances, taken directly from the revival, were designed by Randy Skinner (who was Champion's assistant a quarter-century ago).
Buster volunteers that the show's most complex dance number, without a doubt, is "the final tap for the '42nd Street Ballet.' That involves every one of our dancers, all in different costumes, and it's really quick," she says. "When they all come down on those stairs -- it's a real crowd-pleaser."
Which plays to one of musical theater's strengths, of course: "There is nothing like live performance," Buster says. "When you get  dancers doing the same step at the same time, you can feel that energy -- it's just shooting out of them."
She essayed a comparison to a current movie musical. "With The Producers -- I love that show, but when they did the big production numbers, something is lost.
"The liveness of the moment -- I know that sounds like a clich & eacute;, but when people go to the theater, they hear and smell and taste. Every sense is heightened -- whereas with a movie, you're just sort of watching passively.
When it's live up there, anything can happen," says Buster. "We're watching, almost snooping in on people, but in a very exciting way."
This show, however, is the touring version of a 2001 revival of a 1980 musical based on movies from the early 1930s. Young women don't dream about starring in a Broadway show anymore; they dream about making it big on American Idol and scoring a big recording contract. Aren't the audiences for 42nd Street kind of gray?
"This thing stands on the music and the dancing," says Buster. "If you're a fan of musical theater, you're going to love this show no matter what period it's written in. It's so wholesome. It was written before people got all cynical about love affairs. There's absolutely nothing tongue-in-cheek about it.
"A lot of musicals today, they're poking fun. And people who are used to those will say, 'Oh, this is so clich & eacute;.' But this is the show that set the mold and created that clich & eacute;."
Enjoy the tap dancers of 42nd Street on Thursday, Feb. 2, at 7:30 pm; on Friday, Feb. 3, at 8 pm; on Saturday, Feb. 4, at 2 pm and 8 pm; and on Sunday, Feb. 5, at 1 pm and 6:30 pm. Tickets: $30-$49. Spokane Opera House, 334 W. Spokane Falls Blvd. Visit www.bestofbroadwayspokane.com or call 325-SEAT.