Director/choregrapher Jon Engstrom has helmed more than 25 shows in his career, from Broadway to Europe and Asia. But when it comes to mounting yet one more production of the classic “42nd Street” – where he got his start – he sees himself as a caretaker rather than an innovator.
“It’s not my show. It’s not my vision. My goal is to preserve Gower Champion’s work,” Engstrom says of the famed director/choreographer who brought the original show to Broadway in 1980 and won the Tony for best musical. The show ran for eight years in New York, won the Olivier in 1984 for best musical in London and another Tony in 2001 as best musical revival.
Tragically, Champion – better known by most people as the poised dance partner for his wife, Marge, on 1950s TV and in movie musicals like “Show Boat” – died on opening night, and Engstrom, who rose from chorus boy to featured dancer to dance captain in the Broadway original, is determined to carry on Champion’s legacy.
“That’s why people hire me to do ‘42nd Street.’ I have my other shows that I do, but this is sacred territory. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Engstrom says of Champion’s vision of contrasting Depression-era gritty reality with gaudy fantasy and escalating production numbers for purely nostalgic, feel-good escapism.
The show, based on Busby Berkeley’s 1933 movie musical with Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell, tells the ultimate Broadway Cinderella tale about a naive kid fresh off the bus from Smalltown, USA, who is hired as a chorus girl but becomes an overnight sensation when she goes on for the ailing star on opening night. Music by Harry Warren and Al Dubin includes such classics as “You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me,” “We’re in the Money,” “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” “Lullaby of Broadway” and, of course, the tap-happy title tune.
Back in Wichita for the third time after directing versions in 1989 and 1998, Engstrom and longtime associate choreographer Hector Guerrero will again re-create Champion’s vision for Music Theatre Wichita’s season finale, which opens Wednesday.
Several key cast members are veterans of Engstrom’s previous versions, in Wichita and other regional theaters across the country, including Tessa Grady, who at 15 lied about her age to get into the chorus in Long Beach, Calif., but later, at 18, made it as ingenue Peggy Sawyer – the Ruby Keeler role.
“Jon (the director) used to throw empty water bottles at my feet when I messed up a dance step,” Grady remembered with a laugh as she readied for her MTWichita debut. “That was only for about one day. I loved it because it empowered me. It showed that he knew I was better than I thought I was. He doesn’t ride my tail so hard now. I won’t say he’s mellowed, but he’s more content with my performance.”
Adds director Engstrom with a sly aside: “I can fix taps, but I can’t fix performance. I know my limitations. I’m not Henry Higgins.”
Grady, who has been on Broadway in “Annie,” says she likes playing Peggy because “She is a lot like me as a person.”
“I always imagined Peggy as very impressionable. She believed what people told her she could and couldn’t do. What I like about her is that she changes perspective (during the show) and realizes she can decide for herself what’s right for her. She finds her confidence, like I did,” Grady says. “When I first auditioned for Peggy, I was sure I could do it. Then a friend told me to stop reading it as a character and just read it as myself. That worked because she is not a caricature. She is very human. That’s how I connect with her.”
Playing Billy Lawlor (the Dick Powell role), a handsome young singer/dancer with eyes for Peggy, is ShonnWiley, a 1996-1998 veteran of the MTWichita company who has gone on to a Broadway, film and concert career.
“ ‘42nd Street’ has always been a big part of my life. I grew up listening to basically two albums, ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and ‘42nd Street,’ to find my voice,” says Wiley, a Carnegie Mellon University grad. “After college, I needed a job and got (the role of) Billy in a non-Equity production. That’s how I got my start in New York.”
Wiley later went to Broadway with the 2001 Tony-winning revival and continued with it for a 2002 tour to Russia that nearly came under attack by Chechen rebels.
“Three days out from our opening, the rebels took hostages at another theater in Moscow, and a lot of people died when they tried to use gas to get things under control,” Wiley recalls of the tragedy. From news accounts, more than 130 of the 850 people from 14 countries in the sold-out audience died in the attack at the Dubrovka Theatre. Despite the danger, Wiley’s show opened under heavy security and former Russian President Boris Yeltsin attended.
Back home, Wiley toured as Bob Gaudio in “Jersey Boys” and was on Broadway as Jack Seward in “Dracula – The Musical.” He is also a member of Under the Streetlamp, a retro-rock group that was filmed for PBS. Incidentally, Wiley’s group will perform at Wichita’s Orpheum on Dec. 5.
Wiley’s long-standing connection with Billy has given him time to explore his character’s heart and soul.
“Billy is one of the better juveniles on Broadway. He’s confident in his abilities. He’s played so many shows that he’s a little full of himself. He’s also a skirt-chaser who likes the ladies. He finds Peggy charming, but he’s not ready to take things too seriously because he doesn’t want to show his vulnerability,” Wiley says.
Damon Kirche, familiar here as King Arthur in “Camelot,” Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady” and last year’s harried dad, Mr. Banks, in “Mary Poppins,” plays famous Broadway showman Julian Marsh (think: Florenz Ziegfeld), who is determined to put on a big, spectacular musical at the height of the Depression. He discovers Peggy, then finds himself falling for her.
Tracy Lore, best remembered as the glamorous, wonderfully tipsy title character of “The Drowsy Chaperone” and last year’s social-climbing schemer in “Betty Blue Eyes,” plays Dorothy Brock, an aging prima donna the showman is building his musical around because of her name and fame – but also for her rich benefactor, who is underwriting the show as long as she’s the star.
Local stage veteran Timothy W. Robu plays the star’s lovestruck sugar daddy. Ryan Vasquez (Tony in “West Side Story,” Pharoah in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”) is the star’s former vaudeville partner and real – but secret – main squeeze. Patty Reeder and Robert Ariza are the co-writers of the musical-within-the-musical called “Pretty Lady.” And Amy Baker Schwiethale as Anytime Annie (Ginger Rogers in the original movie) is a wise-cracking showgirl who takes fledgling Peggy under her wing.
“Annie is sassy, seasoned and tells it like it is. She calls herself a ‘procurer of talent,’ ” says Schwiethale, a Maize High grad who spent five years in MTWichita’s resident company, choreographed several shows, including “Gypsy” and “Honk,” and currently is assistant professor in dance at Wichita State University. She is delighted that five of her students were also cast as dancers in the show.
“I can relate to that side of Annie as ‘a procurer of talent,’ ” Schwiethale says.