Early one afternoon on the recital hall stage in the University of Kentucky's Singletary Center for the Arts, New York-based actress Darien Crago is playing 42nd Street's Peggy Sawyer, all earnestness and awkwardness. She taps out a quick, stunning dance, but quickly flees after blowing her first impression with imperious Broadway director Julian Marsh.
Marsh, played by Broadway and national tour veteran Matthew Shepard, gives little Peggy nary a thought as he assembles his troops for his big new Broadway spectacle and tells them, "You're going to dance 'til your feet fall off and you're not able to stand up. But in five-weeks, Pretty Lady is going to be the best damn show this town has ever seen!"
Five weeks? Pffft! The Lexington Theatre Company has spent just two weeks whipping together its inaugural production of the Broadway spectacle 42nd Street. But while the company has halved the time of the show-within-the-show's production schedule, the company's ambitions are right in line with those of Julian Marsh.
"Everyone is working so hard, and it really is absolutely spectacular," co-director and company artistic director Lyndy Franklin Smith said before Tuesday morning's technical rehearsal. "It's everything a Broadway show wants to be. It's bright and happy and hopeful and a great time."
And 42nd Street's selection was no accident for the initial production by The Lexington Theatre Company, the first Lexington-based company in recent memory to produce a show by combining the talents of professional actors and theater artists with local and student talent.
The backstage drama of an actress, Peggy, who bursts out of the chorus and into the spotlight, tells the story many of the performers have lived or are living, chasing their dreams of theater careers.
"Emotionally, it is so authentic as actors," Crago says. "You're having real feelings onstage, talking about your profession. For me, it hits me in Lullaby of Broadway, because it's all so real for us onstage."
The production is particularly moving for some of the local actors in the production, including longtime Lexington actor Robert Park Johnson and recent University of Kentucky graduates Rachel Snyder and Michael Sheehy, who are just launching professional stage careers.
"Since I came to Lexington to work in the theater in 1995, we have been trying to make this happen," Johnson says of the locally based professional company that contracts with Actors Equity, the stage actors' union. "I have known a couple hundred actors who have had to leave Lexington to go and pursue the opportunity."
Then, recalling the first 42nd Street rehearsal, he says, "there are dozens of Lexington artists here getting a chance to swim in the big pond. I get emotional when I think about the people I have known and loved and worked with for 20 years, and we'd get together and drink beers and say, 'How can we make this happen?' And Lyndy and Jeromy put their shoulders to the wheel and made it happen."
To create The Lexington Theatre Company,, Smith and her husband, co-director and company producing director Jeromy Smith, drew inspiration from summer stock theaters they worked at during college and after graduation from the prestigious musical theater program at Oklahoma City University, particularly Music Theatre Wichita, where most of the sets and costumes from this year's production come from.
And they grabbed some Music Theatre Wichita experience, such as stage manager Emily McMullen, who spent 15 seasons as production stage manager at the theater. Wardrobe coordinator Joseph D. Sibley, who worked on Wichita's 42nd Street production last year, says that while Lexington lacks some of the comforts and conveniences of an established theater, it has a feel very similar to Wichita in terms of talent and schedule.
The show also boasts local behind-the-scenes talent such as lighting designer Tanya Harper, production director at the Singletary Center, and production coordinator Tony Hardin, an associate professor of theater at UK. Brock Terry, resident music associate, is particularly effusive about the opportunity to work alongside music director Bradley Vieth, who boasts extensive credits around the nation.
For the actors, they are getting to share the stage with talents such as Tony Award-winning actress Karen Ziemba, who herself played Peggy Sawyer in the original 1980 production of 42nd Street on Broadway. In this production she plays the aging diva Dorothy Brock.
Having taken the journey from Peggy-like aspiration to celebrated Broadway star, Ziemba looks at 42nd Street with appreciation.
"As spare as the writing is, it is so clear what is going on, and you say the words and play it, because it's so well structured," Ziemba says.
Crago adds that viewers don't have to be theater geeks to enjoy the show, because "anyone can appreciate an underdog story."
But the performers hope the local theater audience appreciates what it will see this weekend.
"I just hope Lexington realizes in the coming years how special a company like this is," Sheehy says. "I spent the last four years at UK, and during those four years, there was no organization like this. For this to be a first production for this company, Lyndy and Jeromy are literally catapulting theater in this town. To be at this level, to be producing work at this level, on par with some of the major regional summer stock theaters in the country is unheard of, and it's turning Lexington into a destination for college students and super-young professionals like us," he said, referring to himself and Snyder.
"For students our age in the commonwealth of Kentucky to have this, to keep this caliber of talent in the state, is phenomenal."
After this year's production closes Sunday, the Smiths will start looking to next summer.
"We already have people asking what we're doing next year," Jeromy Smith says, "and giving us wish lists."