It's not often that a star-is-born plot features a real, live star being born. But in 42nd Street, the 1980 musical about a Depression-era newcomer stepping into the starring role in a Broadway show, Meghan Bayha, a 20-year-old student at Cal State Fullerton now making her CdA debut, taps and sings and acts so well that jaws drop and eyes gape all over the auditorium. Then they drop and gape some more.
Bayha plays Peggy Sawyer - the last name links the character to another American icon named Tom - who at first is too nervous even to audition for a Broadway spectacular. But then, through a series of lucky circumstances and intensive preparations, the youngster from Allentown, Pa., actually takes over the headliner role.
Now if Meghan from Fullerton making it big in Coeur d'Alene isn't quite the same as Peggy from Allentown making it in the biggest Apple of all, remember that a performer this good is impressive in any town, big or small.
Theater people love a show like 42nd Street (playing at CdA Summer Theater through July 17). After all, it's about them - it's about putting on a show. The achievement of director Stan Foote's production is that it makes auditioning, rehearsing and tap dancing en masse seem like things that all of us do everyday.
In fact, the best way to convey the impact of this show is simply to list its best moments:
- Bayha's tour de force hyper-speed tap dancing when being "taught" how to tap for the first time
- The entire sequence in which director Julian Marsh (Todd Hermanson) teaches Peggy how to kiss, first with the help of stage manager Bert Barry (Stuart Cabe, in a masterful bit of understated comedy) and then on Bayha herself (who's never been kissed quite like this, yet manages to come up with three distinct, hilarious reactions to each of Hermanson's increasingly passionate smooches)
- Julie Powell as the ageing star Dorothy Brock, projecting a lovely rendition of the torch song "I Only Have Eyes for You"
- The opening mass tap dance at the very first audition for Pretty Lady, the musical within this musical
- The way in which director Foote builds and builds the chorus in the scene at the railroad station when the decision to fire Peggy is reconsidered by the entire cast, seducing her -- and the audience -- with progressively more energetic refrains of the "Lullaby of Broadway"
- The miniature farce during "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," in which newlyweds Amanda Lochmiller and Steven Dahlke chase each other all around a Pullman car
- The complex and impressive final mass tap, in which choreographer Cherie Price (who also plays songwriter Maggie Jones) has designed miniature dramas within the larger dance, complete with jazz riffs amid the swirling choreography
- Hermanson's valentine to show biz when he concludes the show by hinting at his love for Peggy in one last reprise of the title tune and its tribute to "gaudy, naughty, bawdy, sporty 42nd Street."
But 42nd Street speaks to the wanna-be star inside all of us, to everybody who's ever sung in the shower and imagined being bathed, not in lather and shower spray, but in the thunderous applause of an adoring audience. (At least that's what I'm told.)
Bayha lives up to our imaginary ideal -- and how, brother. She's gorgeous, impossibly long-legged, and capable of pulling off good acting moments whether serious or comedic. When she leads the entire cast in a song-and-dance number -- when her character returns to the show, when she stars in the inset show's finale -- it feels like she's earned it.
Hermanson was memorable as the Big Bad Wolf in Into the Woods at CdA two seasons ago because he displayed self-doubt even as he gave commands. As the director of the musical within the musical here, he combines the same qualities.
Sure, it's an old-fashioned show, and maybe Powell isn't quite old or crabby enough to realize all the grande-dame-of-the-theater possibilities in her role as Dorothy Brock. But you've got Christopher Moll cavorting around the stage in top hat and sequined vest channeling Busby Berkeley. You've got Ross Cornell, marvelous as the fictional onstage choreographer, leading all those hoofers in one exuberant display after another.
Best of all, you've got numerous examples -- in Foote's direction, in Price's choreography -- of a large number of talented performers working together (often, in unison) to deliver some high-voltage, toe-tapping entertainment.
Especially around this patriotic time of year, it's enough to convince a guy that by golly, this would be such a swell country if only the Republicans would act more like theater people -- and if only more Democrats looked, sang and danced like Meghan Bayha.
Publication date: 07/08/04