Tuneful, tapfastic and impeccably cast and executed, the touring version of “42nd Street” that opened Tuesday at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts is a delight-dispensing time machine that takes audiences back to a simpler but certainly more satisfying era.
You know you’re in good hands from the brass-heavy overture and the very first scene: The curtain rises only a few feet and then freezes, revealing nearly two dozen pairs of legs happily tapping away in furious unison.
You don’t just hear and watch these dancers. You feel them in your chest, kind of like sitting in front of a speaker at a rock concert.
It’s audition day for a new Broadway musical, circa 1933, and new-girl-in-town Peggy Sawyer (Clara Cox) has shown up hoping to impress legendary director Julian March (Matthew J. Taylor) with her talent.
She’ll walk on a youngster and leave a star.
Based on the 1933 Hollywood movie, this stage version features the original Harry Warren/Al Dubin score, about as hummable a collection of Depression-era melodies as you’ll find.
“Dames,” “Keep Young and Beautiful,” “I Only Have Eyes for You,” “We’re in the Money,” “Lullaby of Broadway,” “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” and the title tune — just about every song is a classic.
Which is a good thing, since “42nd Street” comes from an era when plots were an afterthought, thrown together merely to provide a framework for the knockout song and dance numbers.
There’s nothing deep or dark going on here. Just a slew of show-biz clichés played with a knowing affection that never dips into irony.
But, oh, those musical numbers! They’ve been creatively staged to take us by surprise. Huge silhouettes dancing on a scrim. A mirrored ceiling over the stage that mimics the overhead camera employed by choreographer Busby Berkeley in his insanely lavish movie productions.
And the excellent players go well beyond clichés to create characters who stick with us.
Cox’s Peggy is a dervish of dance energy wrapped up in a virginal package. She has an Act 1 tap routine that’s exhausting to watch. Can’t imagine what it’s like to perform it.
Whether intentionally or not, Taylor’s Julian perfectly captures the hubris, aesthetic swagger and wild-haired virility of the young Orson Welles. He spends most of the show being a brutal taskmaster and then late in Act 2 reveals a terrific singing voice.
Come to think of it, just about every named character gets a wonderful song.
Steve Bidwell and Gerrianne Genga provide plenty of humor as the show’s producers (she’s a helium voice beneath an explosion of fiery Orphan Annie curls).
Kahlia Davis is sexy and surprisingly sweet as the sassy chorine who becomes Peggy’s best gal pal. Kara Gibson Slocum is wonderfully vain as the show’s leading lady, a manipulative stage vet whose Oklahoma sugar daddy is financing the show.
Connor Coughlin is endearing as the show’s big-voiced, girl-chasing young leading man.
But here’s the thing: This cast appears so deep and talented that one could easily imagine one of the guys or gals in the ensemble moving up to take over a bigger role, just the way Peggy does in the show.
“42nd Street” continues through May 7 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. See theaterleague.com/kansascity or call 816-421-7500.