Review of 42nd Street at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane: Infectious musical theatre joy of the highest calibre.
There’s a moment of indescribable exhilaration at the very start of this careful yet constantly surprising revival of 42nd Street which begins, as every production of the musical does, with the curtain rising a mere two foot to display the tapping feet of a stunning 40-strong ensemble. It’s the first of many heart-stopping moments throughout this new production that returns to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane some 33 years after David Merrick’s original ran at the self same venue and whilst it manages to feel strikingly fresh there’s a comfort in its exactness and attention to detail that feels like greeting a long-lost friend and immediately falling back into step.
Musical comedy may be, to Julian Marsh at least, the most glorious words in the English language, yet it carries a set of familiar tropes and devices that can leave some audience members stone cold. Not the greatest show of its genre by construction, this musical rarely pretends to be anything it isn’t. The music and lyrics don’t contain the wit and charm of Cole Porter or Irving Berlin, the book is slight and predictable but what it does boast is an enormously talented ensemble that together help it shine up there with the brightest stars in the West End.
Originally conceived by the 'Abominable Showman' Merrick it was an early example of both a screen-to-stage adaptation and a jukebox musical – winning formulas that have since gone on to be the bread and butter of Broadway. Ever with a finger on the pulse, Merrick recognised that audiences craved upbeat familiarity and more importantly escapism – two ingredients it delivers by the bucket-load. This latest revival, dutifully directed by book writer Mark Bramble with faultless choreography by Randy Skinner, was previously seen on Broadway in 2001 and provided much needed escapism in the season directly following 9/11, with the show itself bouncing back strongly as audiences sought light and up-beat entertainment. Its charm is effortless and effervescent and this leave-your-troubles-at-the-door attitude is the production’s greatest asset. I defy anyone to leave the theatre without a smile on your face.
This production's biggest news draw is the West End debut of Sheena Easton in the supporting lead role of fading diva Dorothy Brock, around whom the musical 'Pretty Lady' is framed, thanks to her courtship of a Texan investor. When she trips mid-performance and is forced to step down from the role, young upstart chorine Peggy Sawyer is promoted to the role, and I'm pretty sure you can guess the rest. Easton brings a glamour and radiance to the role that feels slightly anachronistic, boasting a tremendous set of pipes that helps many of the Al Dubin and Harry Warren's numbers land. Her accent wanders, along with others around her and there's rarely any depth, but she sparkles both literally and figuratively and consistently holds the house in her hands regardless.
Bramble's production zips by in the blink of an eye. Book scenes are ecstatic and swift, keeping the show moving from one glorious production number to the next. High drama this is not, but the show is constantly aware of its trump cards and the more time in the company of the glorious and hard-working ensemble the better. The structure of the show allows for it to indulge moment to moment rather than as a composite whole, deliberately pastiching the shows of the 1930s, where, as the lyrics go, audiences come for the “beautiful Dames” rather than the book. Any moments of tension burst almost immediately, resonating with the 'show must go on' attitude that removes any hurdle and keeps it accelerating to its foregone conclusion – a Broadway hit.
Clare Halse is a delight to watch as Peggy Sawyer, courting the audience and affectionately delivering Skinner's rhythmically intoxicating routines. Tom Lister offers strong support as celebrated director-choreographer Julian Marsh alongside some colourful caricatures from Jasna Ivir, Stuart Neal and Norman Bowman, but the show itself belongs to the 'hoofers' who reach into your soul with their perfect synchronisation and contagious charm and leave you walking on air.
Rarely have I seen a physical West End production of this standard, with the full depth of the magnificent Drury Lane stage utilised with set after set, spectacularly designed and realised by Douglas W.Schmidt. Each one of Roger Kirk's sequins is designed to delight and in its dazzle it's unapologetic in its manipulation. This is a show that will certainly tap your troubles away and leaves you beaming from the inside out. Infectious musical theatre joy of the highest calibre.
42nd Street Tickets are now on sale.
What the Press Said...
"Sheena Easton brings poise and star quality to an energetic revival that suffers from its bloodless and out of date source material."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"An American classic right royally revived."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"Luckily, there’s a superabundance of spectacle to revel in, as an impeccably-drilled cast of more than 50 tap up a continual storm to some very tuneful songs."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard
"The spectacle is off the scale in this unashamedly glitzy lullaby to Broadway."
Tony Peters for The Radio Times