The applause for the first musical number at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse in almost two years seemed to last as long as the number itself.
The audience was that happy to see Wednesday's opening night performance of "42nd Street," the first live show by The Rev Theatre Co. since the COVID-19 pandemic. Were they allowed to, I'm sure the performers would have applauded right back. Or at least that's what their smiles hinted — smiles wide with gratitude that they, too, could return to the theater at long last.
But the appreciation filling the Owasco theater on Wednesday wasn't the only thing working in the show's favor.
Wisely selected to reopen the playhouse by Producing Artistic Director Brett Smock, "42nd Street" also hits different after a pandemic. It's easier to empathize with performers struggling for work after the Great Depression when you know the actors and actresses portraying them have been doing the same for the past 15 months, as some of the cast told The Citizen last week.
And that cast, along with Smock and crew, just knocks this production of "42nd Street" out of the playhouse. Even without the struggles of the pandemic and the gratitude to be moving past it, the show would still rank among The Rev's best on its own artistic merits. I didn't love the 1980 Tony Award winner when I saw it on the same stage a decade ago, but I did it on Wednesday.
The story — renowned Broadway director Julian Marsh (Christopher Carl) mounts a new show with fading star Cynthia Ferrer (Dorothy Brock) and fresh new talent Jonalyn Saxer (Peggy Sawyer) — is the same. But as the dance mishaps and dressing room misunderstandings pile up, so do the laughs. The three leads, along with supporting cast members like Soara-Joye Ross as expressive producer Maggie Jones and Mark Woodard as drawling millionaire Abner Dillon, make the absolute most of every comedic moment in a show where humor doesn't exactly come easy.
Carl, with his commanding but likable presence, and Ferrer, with her careful displays of vulnerability amid a diva reign of terror, also soften what can be some pretty whiplash plotting in "42nd Street." Their characters still make some jarring choices, particularly at the end of the first act. But they're less jarring than they were in the last production I saw at the playhouse.
Much as the performers deserve credit for that, I'm sure there was some theater magic at work as well. When you haven't seen a live musical in 15 months, the plotting and other common flaws of the medium fade in significance. They even become charming in their own nostalgic way. But no amount of historic context would have caveated the performance of Saxer. Her Peggy Sawyer is as close to definitive as possible, from her naïve smile and nervous first stammers on Broadway to her assertive tap steps and passionate duet with male lead Billy Lawlor (Julio Rey).
Likewise, the singing and dancing of the "42nd Street" ensemble is terrific in a timeless way. Among the highlights of the many showstoppers is "Dames," which also sees The Rev's costume department flaunt its range. The women go from pastel swimsuits in bold art deco patterns to dresses with curtains of sequins and torturously complicated boas, all within minutes.
Whether or not "42nd Street" at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse directly benefits from the circumstances of the pandemic, the production is, ultimately, inseparable from its time and place. It comes after 15 months of live theater being called "non-essential." But as the show proves, with every step and every soaring note, live theater is just the opposite.