After nearly 20 years of neglect, an ambitious committee formed, vowing to save the huge, long-vacant theater and restore it to its former glory. I lauded their goals—I'm all for the preservation of vintage theaters—but wondered if they were tilting at windmills. The Palace seemed far too cavernous to work in modern times as either a house for film or for live theater. And when committee members said they'd make it a performing-arts center for all Connecticut—a grand showplace for everything from touring Broadway musicals and rock concerts to local talent—I was skeptical. Their attitude was: If we revive the Palace Theatre, suitable attractions and audiences will come. Well, they were right. The impeccably restored, revived Palace just might be the most beautiful restored theater in the northeast. It is certainly one of the most beautiful. It's worth a trip just to experience the grandeur of this space. Since its reopening, the managers have kept the theater filled with an extremely eclectic array of bookings. And perhaps the stunning beauty of the venue itself helps inspire local artists to work at their highest level.
A case in point: I caught the opening night of the Waterbury Arts Magnet School (WAMS) production of 42nd Street at the Palace. Now I've seen 42nd Street many times over the years. For this publication alone, I've reviewed three different productions (on Broadway, the last national tour and a regional production); I wasn't keen on seeing the show yet again. And this was a youth production—a cast of 65, 18 and under, directed by Bruce Post.
But this WAMS production of 42nd Street was not only as brilliantly executed a youth production of any show as I have ever seen anywhere at any time, it also featured the most creative and effective mixing of video and live action that I've ever seen on stage. And this production filled the huge space perfectly. I don't normally cover youth productions, but this was so unusually well done, and so innovative, it demands a report.
Most of our readers probably know the storyline of 42nd Street. The stage musical is adapted from the iconic 1933 Warner Brothers film of the same name (based on a novel by Bradford Ropes), which starred Ruby Keeler and was choreographed by Busby Berkeley. That oft-imitated film still remains the quintessential backstage musical, telling the story of an innocent young hoofer from Allentown, PA (Peggy Sawyer) who gets cast as a chorus girl in her first Broadway show, but then becomes a last-minute replacement for the show's star, Dorothy Brock, when the star breaks her ankle. (The show's hard-bitten director, Julian Marsh, famously tells Sawyer that she's going out there a chorus girl, but has to come back a star.) Most of the action takes place during the rehearsals for the show, and we see one big production number after another. The stage musical version retains the hit Harry Warren/Al Dubin songs from the original film, augmented by some other memorable songs that they wrote for similar Warner Brothers/Ruby Keeler backstage musicals that followed in its wake.
The original film was a big blockbuster hit of 1933 and undoubtedly was seen on the big screen of the Palace Theatre in Waterbury back then. And that brings me to the absolutely ingenious way they've mixed video footage and live action in this production, and made it fill the enormous theater so completely. In this WAMS production, we get to see all of the performers not just "live" on stage, but also, at times, up on the big screen, in brand new footage that has wisely been shot in black and white to evoke the films of the era being depicted.
I give a lot of credit to videographer Domenic Del Carmine, as well as director Bruce Post, choreographer Patricia Gray (assisted by Ashley Caldeira, Alexandra Rhault and Jack Saleeby), and company. Sometimes—as in the big production number "Dames" (which starts with Ben Orlando singing in sterling tones "live," downstage, and eventually includes the entire ensemble performing on the big screen behind him)—one number is simultaneously executed both on stage and on screen. "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" is done as a deliberate homage to the original Busby Berkely film treatment.
At other times, one scene, in one medium, is effectively played against another scene in another medium. For example, we are watching a dance rehearsal on stage. And some characters exit into the wings. We then see those same characters—now as huge images up on the big screen—in a scene set in a dressing room, while the other performers continue their dance rehearsal, "live" on stage. It's fantastic. I've never experienced anything quite like this. (And, as a playwright, I'd love to see someone give one of my scripts such an imaginative dual-medium interpretation someday.) Attempts to utilize film or video footage in live stage productions are not new. (Al Jolson used a film sequence in one of his celebrated stage musicals at the Winter Garden nearly a century ago.) Often times, however, when I've seen footage used in stage productions, it seems gratuitous and a distraction.
But there was something wonderfully apt—if at times surreal—about sitting in this huge old-time theater, watching a stage musical inspired by a classic 1930s film, and experiencing it simultaneously as a stage production and as a film. This backstage musical, based on an oldtime film, was a perfect choice for such a treatment. And of course the huge "live" production numbers carried out by the 65-person cast, and the scenes offered on screen would read well, in any part of this vast auditorium. I was enthralled.
This show has as much dancing as any I've seen in years. And from the galvanic opening—with Jack Saleeby hoofing with flair, in a manner worthy of any New York stage—to the entire ensemble executing the title song near the end, the spirit, drive and lift projected by the performers was tremendous. The cast is rich with talent. Timothy Floyd's sustained intensity as Julian Marsh was exemplary. (Incidentally, he's the first African-American actor I've ever seen star in this show, and he carried off the role—which sets the pace for production—to perfection; it's not an easy part; if the energy flags for even a bit, the whole show goes down with it.) Madeline McCord (Dorothy Brock) brought a touch of old-time torch singing to her numbers that I found really attractive; she’s a fine singer. I wish we could have heard more of Devon Eddy's lovely voice. Toure Richardson found the humor in the role of Abner Dillon. Ashley Caldeira's tap-dancing as Peggy Sawyer was right on the money. And Saleeby has so much stage presence, he made his supporting role (Andy Lee) feel far more central than it usually does in productions of this musical.
But 42nd Street is, to an unusual degree, an ensemble show, and the big production numbers, which carry the night, were a joy to watch. A couple of the dancers (the graceful Luis Omar in particular, and also young Eric Beltrami) moved especially well, and helped raise the tone of the whole production. I've never seen a youth production that felt so big and brassy and energetic. I'm not saying every detail was perfect; you can't expect that at this level. But this was as well-done and imaginative a youth production as I could hope to see. And the glorious Palace Theater—gleaming in red and gold—provided a perfect setting.