42nd Street. Irresistible. A show to lift the spirits.

Sadler’s Wells, London
June 14, 2023

It is so upbeat, so positive. It has such a wonderful feel-good factor. From the very first number the final big encore, 42nd Street is an absolute delight. Jammed with great music and great dance, it’s a show that will leave you with a big grin on the face and humming its fabulous tunes as you walk away from the theatre, and maybe even quietly dancing a few steps yourself.

Unashamedly set within the Depression of the 1930s, 42nd Street uses the old show-within-a-show (actually, musical-within-a-musical) idea, which rather neatly allows dance numbers to be naturally slotted into the narrative. Thanks to circumstance and a series of mishaps, Pretty Lady, the show we are watching being made, gets itself an accidental leading lady in the shape of the wide-eyed Peggy Sawyer, a young dancer from Allentown, Pennsylvania (as we are reminded several times) with a big dream. Beautifully played by Nicole-Lily Baisden, it turns out her talent is even bigger.

Adam Garcia as Julian Marsh and Nicole Lily Baisden as Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street
Photo Johan Persson

Baisden is tremendous as the accident-prone ingénue, playing the eager-to-please Peggy with just the right innocent enthusiasm. She just oozes personality and comes with a dazzling smile that would light up the darkest room. The eye is drawn to here whenever she is on stage.

She has a great voice but it’s her dance that dazzles. She gives it her all in a high-energy display that dazzles throughout, although one fiendish series of fast, tapping turning steps across the stage stands tall. It was so impressive that the audience applauded mid-number. It’s incredible to think she only graduated from ArtsEd in 2019.

Ruthie Henshall as Dorothy Brock and company in 42nd Street
Photo Johan Persson

The show’s other commanding performance comes from Ruthie Henshall as Dorothy Brock, the ageing, fading star Peggy replaces in Pretty Lady. She’s the nearest thing the show gets to a villain, playing her role for all its worth. Delightfully sassy, she treats everyone with utter disdain, although even she shows a deeper, more sensitive side a times, especially towards the end. ‘About a Quarter to Nine’ stands out for the wistful quality she imbued it with.

The other great voice in the show is the suave Sam Lips as Billy Lawler. Adam Garcia is excellent as the demanding and dictatorial director, Julian Marsh, who demands his cast, “dance ‘til your feet fall off.” If you hadn’t worked it out by now, there are a lot of stereotypes in 42nd Street. Marsh is another who keeps his softer-self hidden, although, like Brock, he too melts eventually. Garcia is another fabulous dancer too, seen best in ‘Lullaby on Broadway,’ where he bounds up the big staircase with ease.

42nd Street. Photo Johan Persson

Most disappointing is Les Dennis who, while good-natured, ambles around like a lost dog at a fair as he speak-sings his way through the role of writer-comedian and Pretty Lady producer Bert Barry. His creative partner Maggie, played by Josefina Gabrielle is almost the opposite, stealing scene after scene with who quickfire lines and physical comedy. Michael Praed has relatively little to do as Dorothy’s true love, Pat.

The plot is a bit clichéd and full of stereotypes (the dictatorial director, the sugar-daddy investor, the fading star hanging on longer than she should, the good-hearted hoofers) but, quite frankly, when the song and dance is this good, who cares? And the fabulous numbers do just keep coming.

The ensemble plays its part too. It may be smaller than for many shows but you barely notice it, so much do they give as they power their way through Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s fabulous songs, and Bill Deamer’s incredibly demanding choreography, which has several nods to the period, but comes with lots of invention too. Not once do you feel you are seeing a repeat.

Adam Garcia as Julian Marsh in 42nd Street
Photo Johan Persson

The production doesn’t shy away from the time it is set in. Black-and-white projections illustrate the desperation of the Great Depression. Director Jonathan Church has avoided updating things. Many of the snappy one-liners that re scattered through the dialogue are very much of the time. My favourite? A warning for Peggy about the orchestra. “There’s a reason we keep them in a pit.”

The band, under the baton of Jennifer Whyte, are truly excellent, though.

Robert Jones’s set is a dream. Full of period art deco and art nouveau imagery, it shifts easily between theatre backstage, dressing room, street and railway station. And, of course, there is the obligatory big staircase for the big numbers.

Quite early on, director of the show-within-the-show, Julian Marsh says, “Think of musical comedy, the most glorious words in the English language!” When it’s this good, spot on.

Later, Peggy observes that, in theatre, it’s the combined specks of dust that make something beautiful. There are a lot of specks in 42nd Street. It really does glitter. It’s good, old-fashioned entertainment. A show guaranteed to lift the spirits. Exhilarating. Irresistible. Pure pleasure.

42nd Street is at Sadler’s Wells, London to July 2, 2023.

The show then sets off on a national tour until the end of October, 2023. Visit www.42ndstreettour.com for dates, venues and more details.