Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London
April 4, 2017
Unashamedly lightweight, 42nd Street was probably no more plausible in 1933 than it is now. What it delivers, though, is a feelgood factor and plenty of pizazz.
Whereas the film more than hinted at the dark days of the ‘30s, just outside the stage door, and highlighted the sexual dangers for the women in the show, from the leading lady to the humble chorines, Michael Grade and Michael Linnit’s production dispenses with it and goes for sugar and glitz. The film is very thin on songs, Busby Berkley notwithstanding, so the producers have raided the back catalogue and stuffed it full of notable 1930s show songs, which they do an admirable job of shoe horning into the plot.
Clare Halse’s portrays Peggy Sawyer as such a shrinking violet, girl next door type (as she is in the film too), that the transformation into leading lady is difficult to believe. Her exit gag helps to hint that it might be possible, but there is no equivalent of ballet’s Odette/Odile here when Sawyer steps up to the front.
I struggled with Tom Lister’s Julian. He has a lot of songs but has a limited range and poor intonation at the edges. He seems to want to make Marsh likeable rather than play the desperation of a man giving his all in his last shot before destitution.
Sheena Easton as Dorothy Brock pulls off her character but with most of the stops remaining in. She does convince that she is a star, even if her shine is fading and turns everything into a torch song. Her scenes with lover Pat (Norman Bowman) are too short for us to really feel that there is a deep relationship there such that she would willingly give up a small fortune in show fees for and, oddly, the wedding number is not given to Dorothy and Pat but to Annie. The cynical divorce verses are given to Maggie Jones though, which makes dramatic sense.
As with the film, where Ginger Rogers stood head and shoulders above everyone as an actor and dancer, it seems much more likely that brassy Anytime Annie would take over the whole shebang in spite of her protestations that she is not leading lady material.
Bruce Montague gives the most rounded performance as Abner Dillon and one almost feels sorry for him when he is cold shouldered, although here he goes off with Maggie (Jasna Ivir making a bid for the Ethel Merman sound-alike). The producers shy away from him ogling the girls and then becoming sated with all the legs on display and he is less seedy in Montague’s interpretation.
Stuart Neal’s Billy Lawlor is the solid trooper, seen-it-all-before-man of the show. He has a pleasant voice and holds his own as a dancer as well as being a convincing actor. Yes, he has an eye for any new chorus girl, but his relationship with Peggy is obviously genuine.
The ensemble are a character unto themselves. It was a pity that Roger Kirk did not make their street clothes more drab, all the more to highlight his gorgeous stage costumes for ‘Pretty Lady’, the show within the show. Again, the darkness of the film is lost as we gallop through rehearsals with the chorus in matching pastels. The film brings to mind the dance marathons of the ‘30s (think They Shoot Horses Don’t They), never mind the much later Chorus Line, as the dancers vie for a role and are worked into the ground. Sawyer is initially rejected and only taken on when they realise that they are short of girls and because she is hanging round Billy Lawlor. Instead, here, she is just in the right place at the right time when they are a girl short having been too afraid to audition. Not very likely. It is interesting also to note the uniformity of the bodies presented on stage when compared to the variety of shapes and even sizes in the film. It is as if women have morphed into giraffes in the interim.
The show brings old fashioned tapping into its own again. Some of the solos were a little muddy, especially the slow number between Billy and Peggy at the end, but it is the ensemble numbers with a mass of amplified tapping that smooths off any rough edges that make the impact.
Singing styles are very mixed throughout and there seems to be a fallacy that all the women in the 30s took helium before they sang. Girls that have solos use a suppressed musical belt, sweetened with a saccharine finish which grates, although their collective intonation on the chorus numbers works well.
When it comes to frocks and sets, you won’t be disappointed. Costume changes are very slick and the eponymous ‘42nd Street’ and ‘We’re In The Money’ really stand out as the classic toe tapping show stoppers. Red sequined waistcoats, top hat and tails, plate hats – it delivers in spades. Maybe a few ostrich feather fans in the pointe work sequence would have looked good too.
Robert John Andrusko’s sets are superb. He uses a gauze to transform front of house to back stage in an instant, although his very 1930s babe on the ‘Pretty Lady’ cloth reminds us of how different the chorus are as presented. He delivers the obligatory steps with chasers in the finale, his station set is terrific and he even re-creates the sleeping cars on a couple of huge trucks for the wedding number. I almost expected Tony Curtis to poke his nose round a curtain and call “Oh Daphne!.”
No choreographer could dare to produce this show without a hint of Busby Berkley and the simple but extremely effective trick of producing a large art deco mirror and a revolve turns the ensemble into a screen image of switching legs and arms, like synchronised swimming.
The band are terrific and most pleasant to listen too. On stage, though, over-amplified sound means that every flaw is magnified and the overall sound quality, whilst being fine in terms of volume, is somewhat metallic and artificial.
Whilst we may not be in the dire straits of people in the 1930s, a bit of cheering up does not go amiss and 42nd Street is certainly fun. I came out wearing a smile.