Middletown High School South Taps its Way into '42nd Street'
Cast, crew had great, grueling time learning arts of tap, timing and production
It's a rainy weekday afternoon. The school day has ended, but the halls of Middletown High School South are still bustling with activity. Clubs are meeting. Students are chatting while waiting for rides. Sports teams are holding practices inside and out of the elements.
Yet, cutting through all the typical school day's end clatter is the distinct clap of tap shoes rhythmically clicking against tile. The cast members of 42nd Street mill about just outside the theater, dressed in their 1930's period costumes, running lines and practicing dance routines, eagerly waiting for rehearsal to begin.
On Thursday, March 17, Middletown High School South debuts its production of the classic musical. The cast of more than 40 students has been rehearsing since October to prepare for what is a very elaborate musical. And while all plays require their share of hard work, the consensus among this production's cast, crew and directing staff is that this may be the most involved show they have ever attempted.
Essentially a play within a play, 42nd Street takes a look behind the scenes of a large Broadway show in the 1930’s. Set during the Great Depression, when jobs were scarce, many eager young performers flock to audition for this new production, including a naïve but talented young actress named Peggy Sawyer.
Peggy finds herself faced with a variety of new challenges, including the notoriously tough director, Julian Marsh. Marsh is under a lot of pressure, with his entire career riding on the success of this show.
He fears his leading lady, Dorothy Brock, an aging prima Donna, may be a bit past her prime. However, with Miss Brock’s close ties to the show’s main financial backer, replacing her is not an option. When things take an unexpected turn just before opening night, Peggy is forced into the spotlight. If she can survive the pressure, this could be her chance to become a star.
What makes 42nd Street stand apart from many musicals is that nearly all of the dozen or so familiar musical numbers incorporate highly-choreographed tap routines. Since the majority of the actors in Middletown South’s drama club had no formal tap training prior to this year, such a dance-focused musical was an ambitious choice.
However, choreographer Jacqui Mazza was confident it could be done. “The director, [Alexis] Kozak, wanted to do an interesting show and I said, ‘Listen, I can get everyone to tap dance,’” Mazza said. “We started in October and had a kind of tap camp.”
Traditionally, the Middletown South theater department produces two main-stage plays a year — one straight (non-musical) drama, produced in the fall, and one musical, typically held in the spring. Rehearsals for the spring shows tend to begin in January, but with this show’s demanding dance routines, the cast began to rehearse early.
“We had three months of intensive dance instruction, once or twice a week, with our choreographer,” Kozak said. “This is something new for us and something we hope to continue throughout the year to help the students further develop their skills."
The cast members are clearly proud of their newly-acquired tap dancing skills, but they admit that the process was not always easy.
“The tap rehearsals were ... um … fun,” says senior Forrest Burdett, who plays Julian Marsh. He and several cast mates share a knowing laugh, recalling the difficulties of their early lessons. “But we have an amazing choreographer who knows a lot about tap dancing," he said. "We all really pushed ourselves beyond our limits and I think we made great progress. I'm really proud of us.”
Mazza agreed. “We got all 40 kids to tap — and, like, really tap," she said. "The rewards absolutely outweigh the challenges, especially with these kids, because they're so dedicated. The quality of what they can do blows my mind.”
Senior Kevin Gesualdo, who plays a waiter and a thug throughout the production, expressed a sentiment shared by many of the students involved. “Of all the performances we've done, this is the best," he said. "This is something we never, ever expected to do.”
Add to the singing and dancing a set full of many moving pieces, hundreds of sound and lighting cues and a huge cast with lots of costume changes, and you’ve got a potential logistical nightmare.
Fortunately, stage manager Eliza Brennessel has enjoyed the challenge. “It’s very much like being a conductor — taking elements from all areas, working with the director, the actors and the tech crew, and bringing them all together," said Brennessel, a senior who is planning to pursue a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in stage management so she can one day stage manage professionally. “My favorite part of the process is watching a production and knowing I had a hand in facilitating a really great art form,” she added.
Since January, the cast and crew have been working approximately three hours a day, five to six days a week to pull everything together. With a show of this size, there is always the chance that it may not come together in time. But when it does, it can be a magical experience.
Kozak compared it to an airplane. “An airplane is this giant thing that should never be able to pick up that much speed and get off the ground, but somehow it does," he said. "And I think a musical is the same way. Getting 40 performers, 20 tech people and 10 musicians to all do the same thing at the same time is nearly impossible. But that’s what makes it so rewarding.”
Curtain for Middletown South's 42nd Street will be at 7 p.m. on March 17 through 19. Tickets are $12 for adults and $7 for students and senior citizens. (For more information and to purchase tickets, call 732-706-6111. Come and meet those dancing feet!