Remember when West End musicals used to be all singing, all dancing affairs with huge casts, luscious sets and grand orchestras? You’d be forgiven for forgetting because it feels like it’s been a while since anything opened that falls into the category. Well, 42nd Street is one heck of a reminder…
When this revival was announced, I’ll admit to being dubious. Aside from knowing little about the musical itself, it was largely marketed on the casting of former pop star Sheena Easton and soap actor Tom Lister – neither of which had me particularly excited. It seemed odd, then, to open up such a gamble of a production in one of London’s largest theatres.
For those unaware, 42nd Street centres on the creation of a musical called ‘Pretty Lady’ and the relationships between the cast and creative team behind it. Dorothy Brock (Easton) is the fading diva, originally sleeping her way to the top and now barely managing to cling onto the star status, except through her relationship with show backer Abner Dillon. Julian Marsh (Lister) is the producer of the show – a bold and brutal man who is driven by creating a successful production, no matter what it takes. And Peggy Sawyer (Clare Halse) is a spunky chorus girl trying to find her (dancing) feet on Broadway, bringing raw talent to a jaded showbiz world.
The story, written by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, is a simple one and certainly a predictable one – fresh young face rises to the top after showing the showbiz world its foolishness for clinging on to jaded older talent. It’s a plot that’s been told time and time again, but in this latest revival its simplicity is not necessarily a bad thing, acting more as a line to hang some incredible showstopper moments on.
There’s little depth but in this case that works in the show’s favour, because at its heart this is all about the tap dancing, and it’s certainly the reason the majority of the audience are there. With a cast of over 50 (for those unsure, that’s at least double what the majority of other current musicals have) those dance numbers are delivered with a power certainly unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. From the opening moments, Randy Skinner’s choreography hits the audience full force – the curtain rises partially to show rows and rows of feet all completely in sync, before continuing to reveal a stage rammed with performers.
And there little let-up – showstopper number after showstopper number appear, each more inventive than the previous, until the culmination of the cast’s efforts are realised in the final of ‘Pretty Lady’ which sees almost 50 ensemble members dancing on a glitzy broadway staircase. The talent on stage is unquestionable, and despite some solid performances by the leads, there’s no doubt that it’s the chorus line that you look forward to seeing. Frankly, this ensemble shows more talent, more drive and more precision than any other in London right now, and the show is only a few performances into its previews!
That’s not to take anything away from the leads. Easton and Lister do admirable jobs with their characters; even if they’re not award winning performances, both sing Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s score very well. However, it’s Halse who shines – a true star in the making, she’s the perfect Peggy, clumsy and naive and everything she needs to be to make the audience immediately fall for her. We’re on her side from the off, and we’re cheering her on during her star moment in ‘Pretty Lady’.
It’s testament to Mark Bramble that he manages to balance all of the elements within the show. I’ll admit to being worried that I’d slowly become numb to ensemble numbers as the show went on, but Bramble keeps things fresh throughout, and the two and a half hour running time whizzes by. It’s all aided by some incredible set design by Douglas W. Schmidt – here repeating the work he did for the 2001 Broadway revival. There’s certainly nothing overly fancy about the designs for the show, but instead Schmidt has created visuals that look expensive without needing to be gimmicky.
It’s clear while watching that the admission price has been spent well – from the huge cast to the grand designs, every pound that the audience has spent is up there on the stage. For once, some of the extortionate prices feel entirely justified. It’s hard not to be bowled over by the talent of the cast and the brilliant orchestra, and it’s even harder not to leave feeling like you’ve spent a few hours back in the golden era of Broadway.
Go and see it. Simply, this is one of the best musicals I’ve seen. It’s a love letter to old school musicals, and if you want to transporting back to a time when theatre was a grander affair, there’s nothing else like this on offer!
42nd Street is currently booking until July – the best place to get tickets is through the Really Useful Group website here, where you can select your own seat and price.
And the view…
Best bargain I’ve ever found – this incredible view (row A of the stalls) was the grand total of £15. Unfortunately, the producers have also realised what a steal that was, and after the preview performances have upped the price to £75 (which in my mind is still value for money for this show).