Review: Moonlight’s lavish ‘42nd Street’ wows with tap-happy production

Two dancers perform in Moonlight's "42nd Street."
Emma Nossal as Peggy Sawyer and Ian Black as Billy Lawlor in Moonlight Stage Productions’ “42nd Street.”
(Courtesy of Karli Cadel)

The big-cast musical hasn’t been produced at Vista’s Moonlight Amphitheatre since 2009


These days much of the news coming out of the live theater world is bad. Smaller audiences and fewer donations have led companies to slash their budgets and staffs, shorten their seasons and produce smaller shows, while many theaters have shut down for good.

So it felt tremendously uplifting on Thursday night, Aug. 17, to watch the curtain rise just 24 inches or so for the famous opening scene of “42nd Street” — exposing only the tap-dancing feet of more than 30 precision dancers onstage at Vista’s Moonlight Amphitheatre. The charming 1980 show-within-a-show is set during the Great Depression, when a company of theater artists are determined to put on a Broadway musical, no matter how tough the economic times may be.

Two actors in Moonlight Stage Productions' "42nd Street."
Patrick Cummings as Julian Marsh and Emma Nossal as Peggy Sawyer in Moonlight Stage Productions’ “42nd Street.”
(Courtesy of Karli Cadel)

With a cast of 40, a brass-rich live orchestra and a seemingly endless wardrobe of lavish costumes, Moonlight Stage Productions’ “42nd Street” is not only an affectionate homage to the early days of the Great White Way, but also a reminder of the epic-scale, tap-dancing musicals that have been missing from local stages since the pandemic hit in 2020.

Director-choreographer DJ Gray turns out one dazzling and flawless tap dance scene after another. Even after the final bows, the dancers deliver an encore that leaves them breathless but smiling. And music director/conductor Randi Rudolph leads a high-energy orchestra in the pit who number 14 but sound much bigger.

The 1980 musical “42nd Street” was based on a 1931 novel and its 1933 film adaptation, which introduced the songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin that make up most of the musical’s score. The musical’s book was written by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble who preserves with sincerity the ‘30s-era corny show-biz vernacular, theatrical tropes and period situations, but with a sense of humor that makes many of the lines (“You’re going out there a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!”) both amusing and endearing.

The ensemble performs "We're in the Money" in Moonlight Stage Productions' "42nd Street."
(Courtesy of Karli Cadel)

Leading the cast are tap-dancing pros Emma Nossal as “fresh off the bus” Broadway ingénue Peggy Sawyer and Ian Black as the upbeat juvenile lead actor Billy Lawlor, who falls for Peggy after she shows up late to audition for the 1933 musical-in-the-making “Pretty Lady.” They’re both triple-threat performers with strong singing voices, dancing and acting skills.

Other cast standouts are Bets Malone as the seen-it-all-before show producer/writer Maggie Jones and Patrick Cummings as the gruff show director Julian Marsh. Cummings is younger, less bombastic and better looking than all the other Julian Marshes I’ve seen, so the teased-at romance between his character and the 20something Peggy is much easier to buy.

While there are nice ballad moments in the show, it’s the big dance numbers that are most memorable, including “Dames,” “We’re in the Money,” “Lullaby of Broadway” and “42nd Street.”

It’s been 14 years since Moonlight last presented “42nd Street,” and a production this ambitious is unlikely to be seen again in San Diego until the theater industry recovers. So be smart (like the 1933 audience members who paid $4.40 a seat for the Broadway production of “Pretty Lady”) and catch a performance of “42nd Street” before it’s gone.

Editor’s note: Due to the forecast for heavy rain and hurricane-force winds on Sunday, Aug. 20, Moonlight has canceled its performance of “42nd Street” that night and added a new performance on Tuesday, Aug. 29.

‘42nd Street’

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, plus Tuesday, Aug. 29. Through Sept. 2 (show on Aug. 20 has been canceled due to storm warning)

Where: Moonlight Amphitheatre, Brengle Terrace Park, 1200 Vale Terrace Drive, Vista

Tickets: $14-$58

Phone: (760) 724-2110