Sweet Lullaby

UA grad Melissa WolfKlain dances her way to '42nd Street.'

A University of Arizona musical theater grad is re-enacting the star-is-born story of the archetypal Broadway musical, 42nd Street.

Melissa WolfKlain, UA class of 2001, got her first big break with a part in the traveling production of 42nd Street, which brings its dancing feet to Tucson for a five-day run at Centennial Hall, Oct. 29 through Nov. 2.

"I just started on Sept. 23," WolfKlain said, reached by phone in Maui last week, where she was to sing in a friend's wedding during the cast's one-week vacation. "I'm joining Equity (the actors' union) with this show. It's a great show. I love it. I look forward to every number."

WolfKlain is one of 22 chorines--1930s-style chorus girls--in the lavish award-winning dance musical, which also features 10 male dancers, four "swing" dancers who can step into all the parts, and 12 principals. Like the rest of the chorus, WolfKlain sings and tap-dances her way through the show's 16 songs, including "Lullaby of Broadway" and "I Only Have Eyes for You," but she does have a bit speaking part in an opening scene.

"I just found out I'm going to be Ethel. I start a fight ... it's a shouting match. I have a nasty comeback." Tucsonans looking to catch a peek of one of their own will see her dressed in a white shirt and blue skirt, and sporting a dark-brown wig.

WolfKlain had been working in regional theater in her native California before auditioning last summer for 42nd Street, which in its Broadway incarnation won a Tony Award, a Drama Desk Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical Revival in 2001. The first touring show of this production, the musical has been traveling since summer 2002.

Its showbiz tale is set backstage in the precarious days of the Depression; all the dancers in the chorus are just scraping by and desperately need the work. But when the star, Dorothy Brock (Marcy McGuigan), breaks an ankle, it looks like the show will have to close down. Then a dancing ingénue from Allentown, Pa., Peggy Sawyer (Shannon O'Bryan), steps into Dorothy's shoes and, well, you can guess the rest.

The simple tale, said assistant dance captain Amy Palomino, speaking by phone from Portland, Ore., is very sweet, but the show "is really about dancing. It's mainly tap dance, with a little bit of ballet-type stuff. There's one Busby Berkeley-type number with mirrors and ballerina moves. The audience is watching the mirrors above us, and we make patterns, lying on the floor. It's really pretty."

If its plot outline is spare, the production's evolution is convoluted. It started life not as a piece of theater but as a Depression-era movie designed to cheer people up. The legendary producer Darryl F. Zanuck hired composer Harry Warren, lyricist Al Dubin and choreographer Busby Berkeley to put together a feel-good showbiz movie. They named it 42nd Street, after the avenue that was then the sparkling center of the New York theater district. It was a huge hit in 1933, one of the worst years of the Depression. The team followed up with Gold Diggers of 1933, Dames (1934) and Gold Diggers of 1935.

The show never made it to the Broadway stage until 1980. Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble wrote a new book for it and drew on Warren/Dubin songs from a number of their movie collaborations. (The Oscar-winning tune "Lullaby of Broadway," for instance, is actually from Gold Diggers of 1935.) Gower Champion, who had choreographed the original Bye Bye Birdie and Hello Dolly!, created entirely original pieces for the stage musical, as well as dances that evoked the dazzling patterns Berkeley had put into so many 1930s movies.

"His choreography is so amazing," said Palomino, who as a swing has learned all 22 of the female dance parts.

In a real-life show-biz twist, Champion died the afternoon the show was to open. His death was kept secret from the cast, Palomino recounted, and after a wildly successful opening performance, the producer came onstage after the 11th curtain call and somberly announced, "Gower Champion has died." The leading lady screamed and the leading man called for the curtain to be closed.

The choreographer for the revival, Randy Skinner, worked as an assistant to Champion back in 1980. Much of his choreography closely matches his mentor's, Palomino said ("Some of it's exactly the same, and some of it is different"), and he's added some new things. "They had always talked about a big staircase number and now we have it."

Palomino said that the dancing women "do our makeup in the specific way of the 1930s and wear 1930s-style wigs. The costumes are just gorgeous. The girls are constantly on stage, making living formations. They're the secret weapon of the show."

One of those secret weapons, the 24-year-old WolfKlain, said her alma mater gave her great training in the triple-threat skills of singing, acting and dancing that 42nd Street demands.

"I have Marsha (Bagwell) to thank for my great voice," she said of her UA musical theater prof, who has invited WolfKlain to speak to a class while she's in town. "She really pushed me. ... And I studied tap with Michael Williams and jazz with Susan Quinn (of the dance division). They were great. I definitely got a good education there.

"I'm so thrilled to perform on my old college campus," she added. "It's a dream come true."

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