'42nd Street' review – retro pleasures from this tap-happy musical

Read our four-star review of 42nd Street, starring Ruthie Henshall and Nicole-Lily Baisden, now in performances at Sadler's Wells through 2 July.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Happily, “those dancing feet” have tapped their way into London, with Jonathan Church’s touring revival of the irresistible 42nd Street – which began at Leicester Curve – landing at Sadler’s Wells for a summer season. This Depression-era gem is pure feel-good escapism, and couldn’t we all use a dose of that? Per director (of the show-within-the-show) Julian Marsh: “Think of musical comedy, the most glorious words in the English language!”

This fleet-footed and, necessarily, smaller-scale production can’t help, though, feel rather underpowered and underpopulated compared with the titanic version that reigned at Theatre Royal Drury Lane from 2017-19. 42nd Street is a knowingly daffy backstage musical, with dialogue from Mark Bramble that can skid straight into camp; one solution is to hit the audience with such pure spectacle that they take it all in stride.

Another is to just lean into the camp – and this Ruthie Henshall does magnificently as fading diva Dorothy Brock, who has claimed the star role in Marsh’s new Broadway production, Pretty Lady, because her sugar daddy is funding it. Marsh will just have to work around her complete inability to dance.

Actually, Henshall is such a fabulous soap-operatic villain (if they ever do Dynasty: The Musical, she’s a shoo-in) that she slightly unbalances the plot. Who cares if she can dance? Even when her character’s in a wheelchair, she still commands the stage, belting out numbers like “I Only Have Eyes for You” with thrilling commitment and jagged, jazzy flair, if not complete adherence to the notes.

Thankfully, Nicole-Lily Baisden is just as impressive in the competing role of wide-eyed, small-town ingenue Peggy Sawyer. She could easily be an irritating character: clumsy and accident-prone as the average Hollywood romcom heroine, yet always handed plum opportunities. But Baisden is so luminous, so irrepressibly brimming with raw talent, and so naturally (not ruthlessly) drawn to the spotlight that you can’t begrudge her anything.

Building on her gorgeous work in Anything Goes, she’s utterly compelling here; your eye is constantly drawn to her, and she fulfils the requirement, per a fellow chorus girl, of unleashing “a voice that’ll panic ’em”. She leads the climactic dance numbers with sophisticated polish, while retaining an element of Peggy’s puppyish enthusiasm. No wonder she eventually helps the gruff Marsh to fall back in love with theatre.

Or at least that’s meant to be his arc, but Adam Garcia feels oddly miscast as Marsh. He just doesn’t convince as the jaded, well-respected but terrifyingly authoritarian director, and Marsh’s tyrannical coaching style (he piles so much pressure on Peggy that it’s a wonder she’s still standing) just comes off as absurd. But Garcia lights up when he has a number of his own, beaming through “Lullaby of Broadway” and bounding up the big staircase like a gazelle.

Les Dennis likewise seems all at sea in the supporting role of writer Bert Barry. His voice is hoarse and he mainly generates laughs by appearing in his underwear. Sam Lips has the chops for Pretty Lady’s male lead, Billy Lawlor: he’s a perfectly precise dancer and has a mighty tenor. A shame, though, that he doesn’t have fun with the roguish role; there’s no personality at all, let alone any chemistry with Peggy.

In contrast, Josefina Gabrielle nearly steals the whole show with her vivid take on another supporting role, Bert’s creative partner Maggie: skilful physical comedy, dynamite line readings, and bell-like vocals. Alyn Hawke also makes his mark as Marsh’s long-suffering dance director, Andy.

Still, the story is ultimately a celebration of the ensemble, overcoming hard times and production challenges together, and 42nd Street is really all about the delivering Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s easy-breezy songs – especially the big company numbers. These are truly a delight thanks to Donald Johnston’s brassy arrangements and the excellent band under Jennifer Whyte.

Bill Deamer’s detailed choreography riffs on the period (from kick lines to Follies parades) while adding inventive flourishes. I particularly loved the section in the title song where the dancers trade off with the band and add extra percussive beats with their canes: as much musicians as hoofers. Add in sumptuous 1930s styling by Robert Jones, and it’s an Art Deco dream.

Sure, it’s never going to be the most profound musical, but it’s a charmer. To quote the show again (yes, it is endlessly quotable) “who cares if there’s a plot or not, when they’ve got a lot of dames!” If you want to see a talented ensemble tapping up a storm in a show teeming with catchy tunes and retro pleasures, then dance your feet down to 42nd Street.

42nd Street is at Sadler's Wells through 2 July. Book 42nd Street tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: 42nd Street (Photo by Johan Persson)

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