Review: 42nd Street Musical - Theatre Royal Drury Lane
Performance reviewed: April 4 2017
There’s nothing subtle about 42nd Street – this is musical theatre on the grandest of scales, putting the “ooh-ah” into spectacular. Mark Bramble’s adaptation of the 1933 hit film, created in 1980, starts as it means to go on: you hear the thundering of hoofers; the curtain rises just enough for you to see dozens of pairs of legs hammering out a tap routine; then we’re off with curtain up on a 40-odd ensemble nailing a fast and furious, perfectly drilled tap number. The pace barely slows over the next two hours plus – it’s a show that bulldozes you into having fun through its sheer relentless scale. But, my goodness, it works.
This is the granddaddy of the backstage musicals, set in Depression-era New York, in which everyone who’s involved in putting on the show Pretty Lady is fever-eyed with determination to make it a hit, because the alternative for them is (literally) the breadline. Pretty Lady’s producers have reluctantly agreed to make Dorothy Brock – a star well past her prime, who can’t dance – the star of the show, because her sugar-daddy will finance the project. Sheena Easton’s Brock veers towards panto-baddie mean, her singing is rich, deep and characterful (although dreadfully over-miked), and she handles the physical comedy of being inept in the dance routines well.
Meanwhile, naïve little wannabe chorine Peggy Sawyer (Clare Halse) wins over most of the cast and crew, antagonises Dorothy, and when disaster strikes saves the day by taking on the lead role on its Broadway opening night. Halse has a dreamily nonchalant tap style, neat and sweet and perfect for Peggy, with the ability to turn on the speed and produce blistering step sequences when required. She’s bubbly and starry-eyed in the role, just as you’d want. My one quibble would be that she stays neat and sweet – there’s no star wattage when she appears in that lead and it’s a struggle to imagine you’ve seen a star being born.
The plot is really no more than that, but with all the activity you don’t notice. Bramble, who directs this revival, wisely plays what have become the clunkiest of clichés for cheery laughs. Set designs and costumes are ravishing. There are plenty of jokes about putting on a show. It is also judiciously stuffed with Warren and Dubin songs (there were only four in the film), all worked into either 42nd Street the musical or Pretty Lady the musical, and giving scope for some fabulous dance routines. (It also means that Pretty Lady, from the numbers we see performed, is an even more incomprehensible musical than it was in the film – but somehow that just adds to the fun.)
Go into Your Dance lets Graeme Henderson and Emma Caffrey show off their crisp, precise, beguiling footwork. Keep Young and Beautiful involves the most glorious nod to Busby Berkeley’s choreography; as the array of women in flesh-toned leotards and spangles lie in a circle that slowly revolves, a huge art-deco mirror tips at an angle above them, allowing us a bird’s-eye view of the synchronised kaleidoscope shapes they’re making with arms and legs. We’re In the Money is full-on bling, with huge coins rolled on and used as pedestals by dancers in dazzling amounts of gold sparkles – and a bravura dance turn from Stuart Neal. There are some odd moments, notably when six women come out dressed as triffid-like flowers for no discernible reason. And when Randy Skinner’s choreography strays away from tap it’s a little awkward – those same flower-women attempting pointe-work, a terribly stiff tango during Boulevard of Broken Dreams.
But the tap – and there is tonnes of it – is glorious, the kind that leaves you grinning stupidly, and never more so than in the climactic titular number, when a staircase the width of the stage appears, lighting up one step at a time, and all that huge ensemble and cast cascade down it, tapping up a storm that must shake the foundations of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.
Performances 4 April to 14 October 2017
Theatre Royal Drury Lane
Catherine St, London WC2B 5JF
Box Office: 0844 412 4660
Siobhan Murphy is a freelance writer and editor, who also contributes to Dancetabs and Time Out. Find her on Twitter @blacktigerlily