You know those high school musicals you were forced to go to because your little sister or brother was in the chorus? And your parents leaping to their feet for the standing ovation, and you just trying to pass the hours before you could go home?
This isn’t that high school musical. In fact, it isn’ t just a normal high school, with normal kids. This is performing arts high school – and the talent is on figurative pizazz-steroids. Pizzazeroids.
Junkyard contributing writer Sheila has the great pleasure of working in the wonderland that is Walnut Hill School for the Arts. And while working at a boarding school might not seem all that awesome, you would be so totally wrong. The kids are not just high school students but budding talents that are career and art focused, making even the best honor roll student look positively slack and lazy in comparison. And what are these kids working so hard on at all hours of the day? Cello, dance, voice, painting, etc. Walking around the campus in the Spring is like being in a Disney movie with song birds chirping along to the students vocal practices, and lithe kids prancing through a field after dance rehearsal.
And then you get to see the their final performances and find yourself scraping your jaw off the floor at intermission. 42nd Street was no exception to this pizzazeroids rule. If you have never seen the show, I can sum it up as such: lots of hard-core tapping, lots of hard-core singing, and then more hard-core tapping. It’s often regarded as one of the most challenging Broadway shows because of the intricate and non-stop footwork, and Walnut Hill was up to the challenge. In fact, they destroyed the challenge. I do not have my program with me so I cannot name actors by their real name, I will give some deserving notes to actors by character name.
Peggy Sawyer was perfectly cast and the actors smile and hilarious grimaces could cut through butter. She was utterly charming, charismatic and was able to hold both the comedic physicality the character demanded with the charm and personality that a girl still in her youth can effortlessly emanate. I was as enchanted with her as every other character she came across.
The young man who played Billy Lawlor was increasingly hilarious as the show went on, and his booming tennor vocals, though waning a bit after so much dancing (and, let’s face it, half a dozen previous performances), were round and lovely. I’m not sure if this kid’s hair is always that perfect (and/or high and sculpted) but it only added to the character’s ham-fisted approach at being dressed to impress for getting girls. He played into the character’s ‘little-man syndrome’ perfectly and by the end of the show I was stupidly grinning as much as he was.
The young woman who played Dorothy Brock stole the show, hands down. Her vocals were so rich and developed you almost couldn’t believe she was in high school, and the emotive quality in her voice just sucked you into the story – including when she was mocking, screeching or bellowing (on top of the sweet song-birding, of course) at other characters. Her rendition of ‘I Only Have Eyes for You’ was a reminder that many great songs start on the stage, and when it’s done right, it loses the ‘musical theatre’ quality and becomes a stopped moment in time. This was one of them.
Other very notable performances were for Anytime Annie (whom I want to see in a starring role – her musicality, humor and physicality were wonderful, and I found myself gravitating to her throughout the show), Bert Barry (who reminded me of a young Alan Ruck with a little Joseph Gordon Levitt for good measure), and the chorus girls who’s perfectly tinny harmonies and vaudeville throwback performances added to the depth of this depression era musical.
At the finale, the tapping was without musical accompaniment – the most intense part of the show on any stage with any cast – and the thunderous taps and stomps were like a perfectly timed rhythmic thunderstorm that gave me goosebumps. While there were some issues in my mind about the progression of the show and evolution of the characters, that is mainly an issue with direction than anything else, though more time in this area would have helped with character motivation, it was otherwise a spectacular show.
When I did theatre (which was pretty much my whole life up until now) I retained one piece of advice from a director that has always rung true: no matter what role you play, your job is to wholly be that character even when you don’t think eyes are on you. And with that I would go on stage with a fully developed character that at times caught the attention of the whole audience, regardless of how important my character was. I saw this in practice at 42nd Street and only further demonstrated, to me, that these kids are all fighting hard for the spotlight they all deserve.