Tapping Feat

Based on a hit 1933 movie about a Broadway musical, 42nd Street became an actual Broadway musical in 1980, with a book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, and an augmented version of the movie score by Harry Warren and Al Dubin. A David Merrick production, it was conceived by Gower Champion. Because of his grave illness (he died on opening night), it had to be implemented by his assistants, one of them Randy Skinner. The show ran for 3,486 performances – over eight years.

Now, as directed by Bramble, with musical staging and additional choreography by Skinner, and with three more Warren songs, 42nd Street is back. At the luxurious Ford Center, it is an absolute knockout. As I write this, the songs are buzzing in my head and my feet have to be restrained from tapping. I can clearly call up Douglas W. Schmidt’s prodigious sets, the Australian Roger Kirk’s splendiferous costumes, Paul Gallo’s caressing and coruscating lights, and the intoxicating configurations of 40 or so dancers – the thinking man’s Rockettes – as they move in unison or counterpoint, defying our minds and muscles not to join in.

In the theater, nearly as rare and almost as good as genius is consummate professionalism, as displayed by 42nd Street. It means thinking things through from grand effect to minute detail, and executing them with the savvy and sensitivity that taste and experience and effortless-seeming effort can possibly conjure up. This huge, lavish show shares something with a Swiss watch and a Persian miniature: precision and perdurability in every cog or brush stroke, a harmony previously only imagined in the music of the spheres.

You all know the story, the one that spawned an immortal line and infinitely imitated concept: the seasoned director telling the gifted chorine about to go on for the incapacitated leading lady, “Sawyer, you’re going out there a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star!” And Peggy Sawyer – a possible descendant of Tom, now at a neighboring playhouse – goes out and knocks them dead. As the amazing Kate Levering dances and enacts her, is there a soul so dead as not to bask in her reflected glory?

There’s exhilarating work also from the glittering Christine Ebersole, the cannily crusty Michael Cumpsty, the drolly paired Mary Testa and Jonathan Freeman, the acrobatic David Elder, the sadly underused Richard Muenz, and all, all the rest. When you hear the line “Think of ‘musical comedy’ – the most glorious words in the English language!” I defy you not to nod in assent. And thanks to the Ford Center’s location, 42nd Street is now on 42nd Street, God is in his Heaven, and all is right with the world.

There are only six onstage characters in August Wilson’s King Hedley II, but at least seven unseen though talked-about others, leaving the audience at sixes and sevens. Who impregnated the errant Natasha, we wonder? What exactly was Neesi, whose grave he keeps visiting, to the play’s protagonist? Who is Walter Kelly, mysteriously evoked on page 47 but not identified till page 57 of the text?

Great chunks of this three-hour play are exposition; for all the onstage drama and melodrama, a whole lot more from the past keeps being dredged up and, usually, recited in torrential monologues. Some of this, like three of the onstage characters, harks back to Wilson’s earlier Seven Guitars, which we are expected to exhume from our already overtaxed brains.

King Hedley II is the eighth installment of Wilson’s ten-play cycle examining African-American lives, one play per twentieth-century decade. It concerns struggling blacks in 1985, but oddly enough without any specific reference to the Reagan era. We are once again on the Hill, Pittsburgh’s black ghetto, which David Gallo’s faintly macabre set evokes with allusions to previous Wilsoniana.

This is the final chapter in the story of King Hedley II, the putative son of the first of that ilk. King I killed one Floyd with serious consequences; King II killed one Pernell for repeatedly calling him “champ,” which doesn’t sound like much of an insult to me. During seven years in jail, King II befriended a fellow inmate who had stashed away a slew of “hot” refrigerators, which the freed King II and his friend Mister are peddling for 200 bucks apiece.

Disapproving of this are the two women living with King II. One is Ruby, his mother, a former band singer, who had extensive affairs with, among others, King I, the now deceased Leroy, and the roving lecher Elmore, who killed said Leroy. (At least four figures in the story can boast one murder each.) Ruby’s sin is to have abandoned the rearing of King II to one Mama Louise, now likewise defunct, while she, Ruby, was off singing and screwing around. The other woman is Tonya, King II’s pregnant wife, now 35. At 17, she had Natasha, who is already a promiscuous illegitimate mother. Rather than produce another such child, Tonya seeks an abortion. This infuriates King II, who wants a King III to carry on his name, and possibly provide Wilson with a future protagonist.

I can’t go into the jewelry-store robbery by King II and Mister, a comic character who expected his wife to run away but not with his precious furniture. I must stint also on the story of Stool Pigeon, another comic character, whose digs are chiefly occupied by floor-to-ceiling newspapers he collects, and who, though a Bible-spouting Christian, gives a magical Yoruba-style burial to a black cat that belonged to 366-year-old Aunt Esther – also recently departed, but at least offstage – and who, if the cat hasn’t used up its nine lives, may be reborn with her pet. (Aunt Esther is definitely slated for rebirth in a forthcoming Wilson opus.)

Nor can I go into the complex symbolism in which the play abounds, or even into the crap-shooting duel that leads to a deadlier kind of shooting. But I can say that the cast – Brian Stokes Mitchell, Leslie Uggams, Charles Brown, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Monté Russell, and the terrific Viola Davis – perform expertly under Marion McClinton’s assured direction. August Wilson is being called the black Eugene O’Neill; it should be recalled that even O’Neill’s cycle plays (e.g., A Touch of the Poet, More Stately Mansions) are appreciably inferior to his better noncyclical ones.

42nd Street
At the Ford Center for the Performing Arts.
King Hedley II
At the Virginia Theatre.

Tapping Feat