The musical “42nd Street is playing at the Ogunquit Playhouse through July 13. SUBMITTED PHOTO

From the moment the curtain rose, it was clear this revival of “42nd Street” was going to set a new bar for the award-winning Ogunquit Playhouse by being (in the words of Julian Marsh) “better than best.” 

With a tip of the hat to its creative family tree, Director and Choreographer Randy Skinner brilliantly combines the show’s historic blockbuster appeal with new elements, a tweaked script and crowd-wowing rhythms and moves, perfectly executed by a snappy, tap-happy bunch of dancers whose energy and appeal are ferociously addicting.

Written by Mark Bramble and Michael Stewart, with music by Harry Warren and lyrics by Al Dubin, “42nd Street” is the ultimate backstage musical about Peggy Sawyer, a wide-eyed wannabe stage star from Allentown whose dream comes true because she’s in the right place at the right time.

Peggy (the vivacious powerhouse Jessica Wockenfuss) comes to NYC to audition for famed director Julian Marsh’s newest show, Pretty Lady, but arrives moments too late and is sent away by Choreographer Andy Lee (a competent Jake Weinstein), fatefully leaving her valise behind and crashing into Marsh as she storms out. 

With a little nudge from the show’s co-writer and producer Maggie Jones (the Ogunquit family’s favorite famous “hometown” star Sally Struthers) and a few of the chorus girls, Marsh agrees to add Peggy to the chorus. Steve Blanchard is perfectly nuanced as the notorious theater world celeb, delicately balancing between his stubborn bad-boy reputation and an underlying nice-guy-with-a-heart.

Dorothy Brock is the star of Pretty Lady and is the oil to Peggy Smith’s vinegar. Except for her sugar daddy investor Abner Dillon (Cliff Bemis) and her boyfriend Pat Denning (Ryan K. Bailer), Dorothy isn’t well-liked like her new nemesis, Peggy, which creates jealousy and friction all around the set. But whenever things heat up, you can count on Struthers and Kilty Reidy, who plays the show’s other co-writer and producer, for some deflective comic relief.

Pretty Lady previews at the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia but in the closing number of Act One, “We’re In The Money,” someone bumps into Peggy, who then knocks over Dorothy, who can’t continue the show. Marsh explodes, fires Peggy, and announces to the audience the show is cancelled, at which point the Playhouse lights are turned up. Very effective (I feel bad for the first-timer who may have left thinking Dorothy’s accident was real).

It’s two days before its Broadway premiere and with no suitable replacement for Dorothy, Marsh is threatening to close the show. The cast convinces him that Peggy is the fresh young singer and dancer that he is looking for … but he just fired her.

Marsh rushes to the Broad Street Station and catches Peggy before she goes back to Allentown. Initially, she declines his offer but with the help of the entire cast, Peggy agrees — and who wouldn’t after a tingling, motivating, explosive “Lullaby of Broadway” performed by some of the best singing hoofers in the world.

As fate insists, Pretty Lady is a huge success and Peggy is humbly catapulted into stardom — but not before she receives a heartfelt reconciliation from Dorothy, now thankfully looking forward to spending time away from the stage to recoup, and not before successfully reaching, and transforming, Marsh’s heart.

Make no mistake:  “42nd Street” is also a huge success for two huge reasons — the music and the dancing. It’s a show that allows all of the performers to shine, whether in a bit part or a leading role.

The Warren-Dubin collaborations are magical by themselves, mirrors of the magical era when the 1933 Warner Brothers film version of “42nd Street” was released. Songs like “You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me, I Only Have Eyes For You, We’re In The Money, Lullaby of Broadway, Shuffle Off to Buffalo” and of course “Forty-Second Street.”

Music Director Jeffrey Campos — no stranger to Ogunquit fans — conducts a seven-man pit that also includes Jason Liebson, Phil Murphy, Justin Brown, Dana Tebow, Christian Marrero and Steve Giunta. When this orchestra and this cast of superb, powerful singers intersect with this material, the result is heavenly.

But taking the biggest spot on stage is the fabulous genre of tap dancing. If you think tap is an antiquated style or dying art, this revival of “42nd Street” will not only change your mind, but will blow your mind. It is a dancing feat.

The dancers are solidly fit, locked and loaded with the skills and capabilities to pull off Skinner’s demands … and smile.  The intense, laser-sharp precision is unbelievable and the beautiful work of the ensemble deserves every standing ovation they received: Danielle Aliotta, Emily Applebaum, Willie Beaton II, Allison Blanchard, Quinten Patrick Busey, Brittany Cattaruzza, Alex Drost, Liz Friedmann, Patrick Heffernan, Alex John Johnson, Tommy Joscelyn, Trent Kidd, Ryan Koerber, Brianna Latrash, Lily Lewison, Elizabeth McGuire, Andrew Muylle, Melissa Schott and Kristen Welsh.

Jessica Wockenfuss (Peggy) and Jake Weinstein (Andy Lee) are masterful dancers. Con O’Shea-Creal is the quintessential song and dance man, magnificent as Billy Lawlor and a nod to Fred Astaire.

Skinner’s choreography is phenomenal, head-turning, heart-racing creative ingenuity put into glorious, stunning motion. The man is a genius — period! 

Skinner learned from the best.  In 1980, he was assistant to Gower Champion whose direction and dances branded the original Broadway production’s long-running success. Sadly, Champion died on Opening Night. With Mark Bramble at the helm, Skinner was part of the creative team for the 2001 Broadway revival, 2015 West End revival and the 2015 National Tour. 

Bramble’s untimely passing in February of this year particularly hit home as he was developing the Ogunquit production with Executive Artistic Director Bradford T. Kenney. At Kenney’s request, Skinner graciously took the reigns as Director and Choreographer, keeping Bramble’s creative legacy alive and the “42nd Street” brand intact, perhaps bequeathing new hope and inspiration to upcoming generations of Peggy Sawyers out there.

No, I didn’t forget to mention Rachel York. I just wanted to save the best for last. She’s been to Maine before — here at Oqunquit in “Spamalot,” but also in concert appearances at Windham High School and the Franco Center in Lewiston. She is ridiculously blessed with exemplary talents that cover a broad spectrum of performance genres. Her singing ability is uncanny. With pinpoint precision, she can effortlessly place her notes, her words, her breaths, her style, her technique, exactly where she wants them. She plays a star because she is a star — of stage, film, television and concert halls — and she’s one of the nicest ladies this industry is fortunate to have (www.rachelyork.com).

The show runs thru July 13. Ogunquit Playhouse is located on Route 1, Ogunquit, “where the underworld can meet the elite.” For more information, call 646-5511 or visit OgunquitPlayhouse.org.

— Louis Philippe is a theater reviewer for the Journal Tribune.

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