Conventional wisdom has Chicago short on Broadway-type hoofers. But a trip across the Indiana state line to a Munster "42nd Street" reveals, if not seasoned veterans of the noble art, some fine young dancers tapping up a storm.
When Peggy Sawyer (Nicole Miller) popped up Sunday night, my first thought was that any number of the actresses who surround her in director William Pullinsi's production could have played that role. That's not a criticism of the very spunky Miller, although she could seize the spotlight more, so much as me noting that the choreographer here, Linda Fortunato, has come up with a very fine ensemble. And "42nd Street," where the cringe-worthy scenes are mostly an excuse to get to some big, loosely connected musical number like "Shuffle off to Buffalo," showcases the ensemble more than most any other show you can name.
Pullinsi, who ran the old Candlelight Dinner Playhouse for years, has directed this particular attraction once or twice before. Indeed, many remember "42nd Street" as one of Pullinsi's signature attractions. He is a man who tends to his legacy, so the size of the show should not be a surprise. The old pro really does use this difficult space well here, building a full-blown proscenium (the game Jack Magaw is the designer) replete with a massive show curtain, yet still allows for the big thrust space to take the dancers out into the audience. And while I didn't check the province of the outsized quarters and other scenic paraphernalia that make up the set piece, props and specialty costumes for numbers like "We're in the Money," I wouldn't be surprised if some of these items have been languishing in some suburban warehouse for years, waiting for just such a revival of the Pullinsi school.
Old school is what you get. These days, the show within a show at "42nd Street" often looks like a Broadway show you'd actually want to see (I've seen this particular title three times this year alone; this one isn't the most artful, but it's kind of the most fun). Pullinsi is more faithful to 1933, staging a much tackier version of "Pretty Lady," replete with a plethora of smiling ladies in skimpy costumes, more Atlantic City than the Great White Reconstructed Way, which makes sense, given that one of the big numbers in the show is "Dames." But aside from that approach, which might only be to some tastes, the main pleasures here flow from the veteran performers in the cast, including Paula Scrofano, whose Dorothy Brock is strikingly empathetic, and, as Abner Dillon, Dale Benson, who made his first appearance in the Chicago theater more than 50 years ago and who still can deliver a punch line.
Larry Adams makes for a kinder, gentler Julian Marsh, which is a nice touch. Some productions of this show play up the sexual tension between the great director and his star (whom he kisses in the workplace at least three times, apparently without concern for sexual harassment charges). Not this one. Adams is paternalistic; one of this fine actor's great qualities, aside from his ever-pleasing voice, is his vulnerability. It's good to see some chinks in Julian, and Adams shows you them all night long. We're all just one bad day away from oblivion, after all, and "42nd Street," if it can be said to have a message, certainly does not shy away from the observation that youth sells and the oldsters better know when to make their exit.
Some of those theater-loving oldsters doubtless will make their way to Theatre at the Center, a joint big on bus groups. If they do, they won't be tapping their toes to a full orchestra; with several Equity contracts and a cast of 21, something had to give to make this happen. But they'll get a show — actually two shows in one — with plenty of smiling young faces to enjoy.
When: Through Oct. 21
Where: Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge Road, Munster, Ind.
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes
Tickets: $38-$42 at 219-836-3255 and theatreatthecenter.com