By MARILYN LESTER**** Once upon a time Broadway shows were produced by individuals. Among the most famous of those lone producers, whose names appeared above the title, was David Merrick. Under his guiding hand, the blockbuster musical 42nd Street opened on the Great White Way in June 1980, playing 3,486 performances; it didn’t close until January 1989. For much of that time, song and dance man extraordinaire Lee Roy Reams was with the production, working with a host of scintillating actors under the leadership of the ailing, legendary director-choreographer, Gower Champion (who died just hours before the show’s opening night). So, yes, there were stories to tell, especially about Merrick, and Reams told them, in his show at Feinstein’s/54 Below, with wit, humor and the perfect timing inbuilt to a consummate man of the stage.
And, of course there was song and —if not quite dance (Reams was a fierce tapper in his day), there was delicious expressiveness in the master’s movement, particularly on his rendition of, what else, “Go Into Your Dance.” 42nd Street was based on the 1933 film of the same name, with music from the film (and a few others of that era) written by composer Harry Warren, lyricist Al Dubin (with one Johnny Mercer lyric: “Sunny Side of Every Situation”). Reams first bounced into “the national anthem of show business,” as he put it, an energetic “Lullaby of Broadway,” followed by reminiscence and the first number sung in the show by his character, Billy Lawlor, “Young and Healthy.” Reams is show biz nonpareil. He’s a raconteur with a canny talent for outrageous and pointed commentary without a drop of meanness in it. His parody of costar Tammy Grimes (pictured above right, with Lauren Bacall, center, and Reams, left) and her number, “Shadow Waltz,” was filled with love.
Reams also knows how to get the most out of a song, and his treatments of classics such as “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me,” “About a Quarter to Nine,” and “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” were not only stand-alone joys, but followed seamlessly from a personal, flowing narrative of sweet memory. Adding interest to the show were images from the original production, and a video clip of Reams dancing to the big, boffo number “We’re in the Money,” from a Bob Hope special at West Point. Having as much fun as the audience (and the star himself) was music director/pianist, Ron Abel, a last-minute replacement for an indisposed James Followell. By the last tune, the eponymous “42nd Street,” and the stunningly special encore, dedicated to Ruby Keeler, “I Only Have Eyes for You,” a great deal of happiness was created and enjoyed. For a little slice of time in a very different modern era, Lee Roy Reams brought to life a whole world of what used to be, with magnificent sublimity.
Lee Roy Reams Celebrates 42nd Street played at Feinstein’s/54 Below, New York City, on October 6 and 7 at 7 PM.