42nd Street Brings the Hip Hooray and Ballyhoo of Broadway to Drury Lane

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s 42nd Street: Company of 42nd Street, Jae Alexander (musical director). Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London. 5.4.2017. (JPr)

42nd Street London
Company of 42nd Street (c) Brinkhoff & Moegenburg


Music – Harry Warren
Lyrics – Al Dubin
Book – Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble
Original Direction and Choreographer – Gower Champion
Musical Staging and New Choreography – Randy Skinner
Director – Mark Bramble

Cast included:

Peggy Sawyer – Clare Halse
Billy Lawlor – Stuart Neal
Dorothy Brock – Sheena Easton
Julian Marsh – Tom Lister
Maggie Jones – Jasna Ivir
Bert Barry – Christopher Howell
Abner Dillon – Bruce Montague
Andy Lee – Graeme Henderson
Pat Denning – Norman Bowman
Annie – Emma Caffrey
Lorraine – Ella Martine
Phyllis – Clare Rickard

It is 2017 and to hear lyrics like ‘What’s cute about a little cutie is her beauty, not brains’ without cringing is a credit to the success of this feel-good evening. Britain is a distinctly pessimistic country and we face another two years (and more?) with news in print and on TV – almost 24/7 – about Brexit there is a need to completely switch off your normal thinking and let your mind go blank and wallow in glitz, glamour, nostalgia and the fairy tale story of a girl from the chorus who becomes a star. The plot is perhaps an overfamiliar one, but that is not 42nd Street’s fault because the 1933 Busby Berkeley movie came first, then its 1980 Broadway adaptation, which subsequently has spawned a myriad of other backstage stories. If you are feeling at all miserable, for whatever reason, I urge you to go and see 42nd Street and you will be uplifted by perhaps the most-energetic, smiliest, toe-tappiest show ever; in one of the best stagings London’s West End must have ever witnessed.

It is basically Cinderella with tap shoes rather than glass slippers. It is set during the Great Depression and is very much an ensemble show. It is also a love letter to generations of eternally optimistic chorus boys and girls, as well as, Broadway itself. At one point Julian Marsh –  the acclaimed director making a comeback with Pretty Lady the ‘show within a show’ – exclaims ‘Musical comedy, the two most glorious words in the English language!’ This might seem something of an overstatement, yet given how good this current revival of 42nd Street is, perhaps it more true than I previously cared to believe. Marsh also gets the musical’s most famous line when he tells the young wannabe, Peggy Sawyer, ‘You’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star’. Tom Lister brings a convincing sincerity to this moment which highlights his accomplished performance as Julian Marsh. Peggy is the small-town girl who has come to New York with stars in her eyes, gets a chance in the chorus by sheer luck, gets fired, but has her ‘lucky break’ when the veteran star of Pretty Lady fractures her ankle.

To be honest Lister makes his character appear more ‘real’ than some around him who remain mere cyphers. Mostly their backstories and relationships are underdeveloped in the book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble (based on a novel by Bradford Ropes), and 42nd Street is far from being a social documentary of America in the 1930s or the real hardships of show business. Marsh is single-minded about the success of his Pretty Lady, almost at all costs. A nurturer of talent he may well be, but he also arranges for hoodlums to harm someone standing in his way. These moments of darkness in the story vanish in an instance and soon everyone is tapping away again. With his implausible 36 hours to prepare Peggy for her leading role he says, ‘By tomorrow night I’ll either have a live leading lady or a dead chorus girl’, yet this is hardly Black Swan.

Though her role is that of the villain of the piece, Sheena Easton is eventually quite affecting as Dorothy Brock, the ill-fated diva hoping for a comeback. Easton is like the lovechild of Joan Collins and Bernadette Peters. Easton has a lovely voice, especially evident in ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ and especially ‘About a Quarter to Nine’ as she cedes the limelight to her young replacement and gives her advice on how to make the audience listen to her song. Actually in this musical a number of the talented cast reminded me of their predecessors in musical theatre; Stuart Neal as the sparky young tenor was Donald O’Connor, Jasna Ivir as the warm-hearted Maggie Jones (one of the writers of Pretty Lady) belted out her numbers with Ethel Merman-like gusto, and even Clare Halse as Peggy brings back memories of the much-missed Debbie Reynolds and even channels Grace Kelly in High Society when she says how ‘Grand, Grand, Grand’ it will be if Marsh joins her at the aftershow party. These and other reminiscences didn’t spoil my enjoyment, moreover, they seemed to add to it.

Though director, Mark Bramble, has delivered a stylish show it is all the dancing feet led by the bubbly Halse’s lightning tapping – that seems powered by Duracell batteries – you will remember most. The first thing you see as the curtain rises falteringly are those feet of the chorus girls and boys who Marsh will dismiss as merely ‘specks of dust’, yet who moving together as one makes something beautiful. Add to this the amazing sets, the dazzling costumes, the fine singing, as well as, all the high-wattage grinning; and you have a hugely enjoyable show from that terrific opening number through to Lister’s very poignant reprise of ‘42nd Street’ and the joyous Finale involving the full company. The choreographer, Randy Skinner, has drilled his huge cast of 50 or more with almost militaristic precision to fill London’s biggest stage. I enjoyed the homage to the Busby Berkeley’s original 1933 film in a scene where the girls’ legs are used to create geometric patterns reflected in an overhanging mirror. Then there is the familiar 42nd Street sight of everyone tapping frenetically on large drum-shaped nickels and dimes for ‘We’re in the Money’. I particular liked the inventiveness of the ‘Celebrity Square’-type setting for ‘Sunny Side to Every Situation’ and the comedy routine for ‘Shuffle Off to Buffalo’ featuring Christopher Howell’s Bert (a performer, as well as, co-writer of Pretty Lady) and his vivacious bride, ‘Anytime Annie’ (Emma Caffrey).

I could go on, but will finish by stating that 42nd Street is so full of Harry Warren and Al Dubin classics – spiritedly played by an excellent band conducted by the flamboyant Jae Alexander – that it will definitely lift your spirits and send you out of the theatre singing the tunes to yourself and tapping your own feet. In 2017 don’t we all just need a little dose of the ‘hip hooray and ballyhoo’ of old Broadway just once in a while?

Jim Pritchard

Leave a Comment