HISTORICALLY, ATLANTIC City presentations of Broadway musicals have been a "Forrest Gump" affair - like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get.
Gambling-den audiences have, through the years, tasted everything from high art (Trump Plaza's 2004 production of "Cabaret") to the highly ridiculous (Tropicana's mind-bogglingly bad, 2009 take on "Fame the Musical") and everything in-between. It's a pleasure to report that while the rendition of "42nd Street" that runs through July 3 at Resorts Atlantic City doesn't set the bar any higher, it is an all-around excellent program that deserves attention.
"42nd Street," of course, is the 1980 stage version of the 1930s Busby Berkeley film musical that pretty much invented the genre. The mother of all backstage musicals, it centers on the trials, tribulations and (is this really a spoiler?) ultimate triumph of one Peggy Sawyer, a wide-eyed lass from Allentown who dreams of stardom. One evening she fills in for the star of the show and, as the iconic line has it, "comes back a star."
It would be silly to suggest the star here is anything other than the Harry Warren-Al Dubin score that, eight decades later, remains breathtaking in its pop craftsmanship. In the space of 90 minutes, such classics are rendered as: "You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me," "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," "Lullaby of Broadway, "About A Quarter to 9," "We're in the Money" and the title track. And because of casino-mandated trims, what may be the best tune of all, "I Only Have Eyes for You," didn't even make the cut.
But all of this musical gold would be worthless in the hands (larynxes?) of an untalented cast. Thankfully, "42nd Street" boasts one of the best ensembles yet seen in a casino book musical production. If any of the performers made a false move during a recent performance, it slipped by these eyes and ears.
In any staging of "42nd Street," at least half of the pressure rests on the usually slim shoulders of whoever plays Peggy. In this case, it's Joanna Schlitt, who defines both "spunky" and "cockeyed optimist" as she essays the role. The triple-threat Schlitt sings as well as she acts and dances as well as she sings. If there is any problem at all, it's that the blond, sharp-featured Schlitt's resemblance to Lady Gaga is a mild distraction.
It's equally important to have a willful, blustery turn from the actor who plays director Julian Marsh, the one-time King of Broadway who, with the onset of the Great Depression, desperately needs a smash. Resorts gets one from the wonderfully named Rutledge Varley.
The chrome-domed Varley (it's hard to imagine he's never played Daddy Warbucks in "Annie") serves up just the right combination of edgy toughness and show-business sentimentality. He pretty much dominates every scene he is in.
The supporting cast is likewise impressive. Unlike that of some previous casino musicals, this group of performers are uniformly professional and absolutely convincing. The only problem here is that the shortened running time has robbed them of many chances to strut their acting stuff.
Behind-the-scene details also are exceptionally well-handled. Choreographer Paula Hammons Sloan has devised plenty of smart, animated dance segments (many featuring lots o' tapping). And director Steve Steiner, an old casino-show hand, does a bang-up job keeping the 22 actors and dancers - and the scenery - in line on a Superstar Theater stage that has relatively little width and depth and virtually no height.
It all comes together to conjure a darn-near perfect piece of casino entertainment.
Resorts Atlantic City, Boardwalk at North Carolina Avenue, showtimes vary, $25, 800-736-1420, ticketmaster.com.
To celebrate the imminent release of that searing look at the human condition, "The Hangover II," Caesars Atlantic City is sponsoring a free screening of the original film in the Circus Maximus Theater tomorrow.
Directly after the 8 p.m. showing, the action moves to Dusk disco where a "Best Beard" contest will be held. The grand prize is four tickets to a VIP preview of "H2" in New York City. It probably needn't be said you have to be 21 (and hairy) to enter.
The festivities also include a performance by The Dan Band.
As a run-up to the upcoming introduction of some new restaurant concepts from the B.R. Guest dining conglomerate at Harrah's Resort Atlantic City and Caesars, the Viking Cooking School at Harrah's has scheduled three cooking classes based on the new soon-to-open eateries.
The last one takes place Tuesday with Chef Brett Reicher of Bill's Bar & Burger. Reicher will unveil his secrets for preparing the sliders and milkshakes that will be staples at the outlet slated to open shortly at Harrah's.
The two-hour seminar begins at 6 p.m. "Tuition" is $99 per person. To register, call 800-242-7224, or go to vikingrange.com.
Air Supply in Chester
Fans of the musical version of Hallmark romance cards, better known as Air Supply, will want to be at Harrah's Chester Racetrack & Casino tomorrow as the Australian duo of Graham Russell and Russell Hitchcock perform there. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets are $35, $40 and $45.
Chuck Darrow has been covering Atlantic City and casinos for over 20 years. Read
Saturdays at 1:45 a.m. with Steve Trevelise on WIP (610-AM) and 3:05 p.m.
on Atlantic City's WOND (1400-AM) with Marc Berman.