Benet Catty Productions

42nd Street (WE 2017)

Jun 19, 2017

Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

Fans of dance are supremely well served by the London theatre scene this year. There have been two big openings in two huge theatres of two major dance-dominated musicals from Broadway. An American in Paris (which I reviewed here in May) is the classiest show in London, a ballet every bit as much as it's a musical. 42nd Street, that most Broadway-ish of Broadway shows, is the most glamorous, with tap dancing aplenty and a cast of fifty. (Yes, FIFTY.)

42nd Street has a long pedigree. Based on the 1933 Hollywood film and including standards like "We're in the Money" and "Lullaby of Broadway", the Tony-winning Broadway adaptation became an Olivier-winning success in London in the 80s at the same theatre as now. It was staged by director/choreographer Gower Champion and produced by the infamous producer David Merrick ("the abominable showman") who made himself famous by announcing the unexpected death of Champion at the opening night curtain call.
Mark Bramble, the co-writer with Michael Stewart, has re-staged multiple productions of it since then (including a good if lower budget UK touring production a few years ago). He once again delivers a slick and pacey staging, on Douglas W Schmidt's sets and with Champion's original choreography restaged and augmented by Randy Skinner.

The story could be written on the back of a postage stamp. A new show is trying out before moving to Broadway during the Great Depression. The director is a cad; the leading lady is a diva; the money comes from a silly old coot with a cowboy hat. You get the idea. The leading lady, Dorothy Brock (played by Sheena Easton), gets injured and a sweet young girl, Peggy Sawyer, is plucked from the chorus with the immortal line "You're going out there a youngster but you've gotta come back a star." But will she be ready in time? Guess.

The show pleasingly spends the minimum possible time on its anorexic plot. It knows that we're there for the next big number and does its best to bring it to us as quickly as humanly possible. Little wonder how many scenes involve a small number of (non-dancing) lead characters: they're killing time while the rest of the cast does a costume change.

The script is a mix of wise-cracking schtick and Broadway corn. It's the kind of show where people say "Wait a minute!" and a raised finger is accompanied by a triangle 'ting'.

In truth, the principal cast do not acquit themselves as well as you'd expect in a production of this class. The accents are all over the place (literally) and few of the characters are given more than one dimension, much less three. Sheena Easton has a terrific singing voice but she is no actress. Peggy Sawyer surpasses her fellow dancers; Clare Halse, playing her, does the same with her co-stars. She's terrific and the one person you care about all evening.

Tom Lister as Julian Marsh (the director) gives an adequate performance - he was once Carl King in Emmerdale, if that explains it - but sings brilliantly. Some others, who I've seen do great work in other shows, are a little bit embarrassing in this one, although it would be unkind to mention Bruce Montague by name.

But then there are the numbers. A Busby Berkeley scene in which an overhead mirror shows dozens of ballerinas making shapes with their bodies is jaw-dropping. An army of fifty people tap dancing on a staircase is the kind of thing that makes anyone fall in love with showbusiness. And "We're in the Money" is as close to a Vegas number as you'll find anywhere.

The glamour of the occasion is enhanced by Brian Kirk's dazzling costumes, which reach apotheosis with a seemingly endless parade of ladies in ball-gowns of subtly different shades. With less class it would be high camp; at this kind of expense it's pure class.

Peter Mumford delivers a tremendous lighting design (including the best lit curtain call I've ever seen) and Gareth Owen, the doyen of contemporary sound designers, gives the show the best and clearest sound of any show I've heard in Drury Lane since Miss Saigon closed there 18 years ago.

If you're not a fan of dance or you relish plots and characters then this classic American musical might not be the one for you. If you want to treat your eyes and ears and beam with pleasure, there are few better addresses in London this summer than 42nd Street.

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