For those of us drawn to the theater for its psychological and cultural insights, 42nd Street is a first-rate guilty pleasure. This 1980 stage revamping of Busby Berkeley’s 1933 film, the quintessential backstage musical, tells the tale of Peggy Sawyer, chorus girl turned overnight star when she has to go on for injured leading lady Dorothy Brock on opening night. It’s hokey, dated, riddled with cliches, and relentlessly superficial–and unapologetically so. Director Mark Bramble sets the tone in the first 15 seconds of this production when the curtain rises only two feet to reveal a stage jammed with dancers in midstep. We see nothing but legs–and clearly those are the only things we need concern ourselves with for the evening. Forget inventive staging, powerhouse design, or even top-notch acting; this touring production glides glibly over Bramble and Michael Stewart’s book, plastering it with comic business so creaky it should be stuffed back in the trunk. The show is also saddled with Patrick Ryan Sullivan’s smug, charmless portrayal of hard-driving director-impresario Julian Marsh and Robert Spring’s stiff, mannequinlike performance as waggish heartthrob Billy Lawlor. But Nadine Isenegger (a replacement for the injured Catherine Wreford, in a case of life imitating art) does her character proud, giving Peggy more than enough guileless likability to make up for unsteady singing and merely adequate dancing. And Blair Ross effortlessly carries the entire first act with her droll, mercurial portrayal of diva Brock. But the real stars are the mob of chorus dancers, who kick the stuffing out of their every number. Next time the show tours I suggest stretching their thrilling finale, a rendition of the title song, over two and a half hours. That’s all we’re really paying for anyway. Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, 312-902-1400. Through December 8: Tuesdays, 7:30 PM; Wednesdays, 2 and 7:30 PM; Fridays, 8 PM; Saturdays, 2 and 8 PM; Sundays, 2 and 7:30 PM; Sunday, December 8, 2 PM only. $22-$75. The 2 PM show on Saturday, December 7, will be sign interpreted.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joan Marcus.