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Benedum Center's '42nd Street' takes viewers behind the scenes

| Wednesday, May 29, 2013, 7:06 p.m.
Pittsburgh CLO
Ephie Aardema plays ingenue Peggy Sawyer in Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera's '42nd Street.'
Pittsburgh CLO
Patrick Ryan Sullivan plays theater pro Julian Marsh in Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera's '42nd Street.'
Matt Polk
Cast of Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera's '42nd Street.'
Matt Polk
Ian Knauer as Billy Lawlor with Lynne Wintersteller as Dorothy Brock in Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera's '42nd Street.'
Matt Polk
A scene from Pittsburgh CLO's 2008 production of 'Annie Get Your Gun.'
Pittsburgh CLO
Pittsburgh CLO's 2010 production of 'The Producers.'
Matt Polk
Sally Struthers rehearses with Malcolm Gets for Pittsburgh CLO's 2010 production of 'Curtains.'

For actress Ephie Aardema and actor Patrick Ryan Sullivan, “42nd Street” is the place where fact and fiction intersect.

They're not just performing as stage-struck ingénue Peggy Sawyer and veteran theater pro Julian Marsh in the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera production that begins performances May 31 at the Benedum Center, Downtown.

They've also lived that life off stage.

“42nd Street” takes audiences behind the scenes of a Broadway musical in development. For veteran producer/director Marsh, it's a make-it-or-break-it production that may allow him to continue in the career he loves.

For Sawyer, just getting cast in the chorus would be the fulfillment of her dream.

As they struggle through rehearsals, reversals, jealous cast members, broken hearts, bent egos and sore feet, both Marsh and Sawyer are driven by their love for musical theater.

“Yeah, I do think that theater and musical theater are truly the most glorious words in the English language,” says Sullivan, evoking Marsh's declaration.

“Just working and being a part of this is my dream,” says Aardema, sounding very much like the fresh-off-the-train from-Allentown Sawyer.

Both Sullivan and Aardema are making their Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera debuts.

But neither is a newcomer to theater or their roles.

Sullivan will be playing Marsh for the seventh time, including the national tour that played the Benedum in 1992 and then as a replacement in the Broadway revival.

Aardema returns to Sawyer for the third time, having first understudied the role at an Orlando dinner theater when she was 14. She later performed it when she was 19.

“Now, I'm the age of the character (21). She comes from a very young perspective — at least at the beginning when she's fresh off the train from Allentown. At 19, that was really easy for me,” she says. “Now that I have lived in New York City for seven years, I feel that I'm closer to the end, where her dream is coming true.”

From the time she was 8, Aardema knew what she wanted to do.

She recalls being given detention for practicing her tap routines while sitting at her desk. By the time she was 15, she had gotten her high-school diploma early by accelerating through her home-schooling lessons and moved to New York City with her mother so she could attend a two-year conservatory program at Circle in the Square Theatre School.

“It was exciting. At the time, I felt I had had to want it for so long. I had been begging my mom since I was 8,” she says.

Many first encountered “42nd Street” as the 1933 black-and-white Busby Berkley film extravaganza. The American Film Institute ranked it No. 13 on its list of best musicals in 2006.

The film was based on Bradford Ropes' 1932 novel of the same name.

Sullivan first read the novel when a friend gifted him with a copy for his 42nd birthday.

“It was life-changing for me. Everything I thought was (exclusive) to my life and our time had happened to actors in 1932. It's just the way the career is,” Sullivan says.

The original Broadway production of “42nd Street” was a hit with audiences and many critics when it opened at the Winter Garden Theatre in 1980.

“It may even be the first time an American show is better than its publicity,” wrote Clive Barnes in the New York Post.

It won Tonys for best musical and best choreography and ran for more than 1,500 performances.

Stuffed full of songs from the film such as “You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me,” “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” “Go Into Your Dance,” “Lullaby of Broadway” and the iconic title song, the show continues to resonate not just with people inside of show business.

“What's so interesting is it's telling a story that anybody can show up, and if they've got the goods, they can be a (success),” Sullivan says. “It resonates more in life than in backstage. Everyone wants to pull for Peggy Sawyer, and they get to watch her succeed.”

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

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