Everyone’s favourite tap dance musical is back on the West End, and, really, shouldn’t 42nd Street always be playing somewhere in the world at any given time?
The West End season of this Tony Award-winning revival has been a long time coming. The Broadway revival of 42nd Street played at the Ford Centre for the Performing Arts (now the Lyric Theatre) for almost four years in the early 2000s. The large-scale production looks terrific in Theatre Royal Drury Lane, one of London’s grandest West End theatres. The space is filled by towering scenery, a massive cast of 43 performers on stage and an orchestra of 18 musicians in the pit.
The production is showing its age just slightly, but once all those dancers get going it really doesn’t matter. The sets and costumes are certainly not of the dazzlingly creative standard seen in 42nd Street in Paris this time last year.
It makes sense that Douglas W. Schmidt’s scenic design features painted backdrops for show-within-a-show Pretty Lady, but there are a few too many painted backdrops for the backstage (ie “real life”) scenes as well. The main backstage set even has two stagehands painted onto it. Two scenes that feature constructed sets, decorated in gleaming art deco style, are Dorothy Brock’s dressing room and the two-story Regency Club in Philadelphia, and these are highlights.
The innumerable costumes of Roger Kirk are undeniably incredible, but their period simplicity is missing the edge seen in more recent Broadway shows such as Nice Work If You Can Get It and Bullets over Broadway. Still, the parade of pastels in ensemble daywear and the shimmering rainbow created by the gowns in “Dames” are sights to behold. Other highlights include the use of signature colours, such as lilac for Peggy and hot pink for Anytime Annie. Immaculately styled wigs complete the picture with a flourish.
The 2001 revival added new songs to the original version of the score. “Keep Young and Beautiful” was interpolated into “Dames,” turning it into even more of a showstopper. Also, tap number “Plenty of Money and You” was added for Peggy and the boys to flesh out the leading lady’s role in Pretty Lady. This production adds another song for Dorothy so that she has a scene to play in Pretty Lady before she breaks her ankle. “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” is a suitably pretty torch song, but its Paris setting makes no sense at all to the internal logic of Pretty Lady, which is clearly set in New York.
Ready Skinner’s sensational tap choreography remains an absolute highlight of the production, and it is pleasing to report that Gareth Owen’s sound design picks up every tap beat with delicious lickety-split clarity. The Busby Berkeley sequence in “Dames” (in which a large art deco mirror reflects the girls’ floor patterns) is just as thrilling the time around. Tapping on the massive stairs at the end of “42nd Street” still lands with great impact. The post-bows tap finale remains a very welcome bonus.
Having co-written the book with Michael Stewart, Mark Bramble is well placed to direct his own material. Bramble keeps the pace brisk (to get us to each subsequent song more quickly) and uses an appropriate vaudevillean style of delivery in which almost every line is boldly delivered straight out to the front.
1980s pop singer Sheena Easton makes a fabulous Dorothy Brock. Easton has such a good legitimate singing voice that one wonders why she has not taken to the musical stage before. Easton looks great in the role, and her English accent adds an extra haughtiness to diva Dorothy.
Petite powerhouse Claire Halse has the physique of an Olympian athlete, along with the stamina. Halse makes it very clear why Peggy Sawyer makes it all the way to the top, fitting all the stated criteria, ie she’s a looker, she can chirp like a bird, and she’s pretty hot stuff in the steps department. Halse has a lovely moment in the big “42nd Street” number in which she takes a quick moment to catch her breath before Peggy really launches into the song; this moment was well directed and equally well performed.
As Julian Marsh, Tom Lister has the imposing physical presence but not quite the commanding voice to suit the role. In the current social climate, Julian’s treatment of Peggy could be seen as inappropriate, but the scenes are played in the way they were originally written, with both actors fully committing to the authors’ intentions.
The status of 42nd Street as a Major Production is indicated by the fact that an all too rare London cast recording has been released.
42nd Street is multi-million pound entertainment that will leave all but the most cantankerous theatregoer with a big grin and a head full of toe-tapping tunes.
42nd Street was reviewed 7.30pm Monday 15 January 2018 at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London where it plays an open-ended run.