42nd Street

Music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Al Dubin, book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, based on the novel by Bradford Ropes
Jonathan Church Theatre Productions and David Ian for Crossroads Live with David Mirvish, Curve and Sadler's Wells
Curve Theatre, Leicester

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Company of 42nd Street Credit: Johan Persson
Nicole-Lily Baisden (Peggy Sawyer), Sam Lips (Billy Lawlor) Credit: Johan Persson
Ruthie Henshall (Dorothy Brock) Credit: Johan Persson
Josefina Gabrielle (Maggie Jones), Les Dennis (Bert Barry) Credit: Johan Persson
Company of 42nd Street Credit: Johan Persson
Adam Garcia (Julian Marsh) Credit: Johan Persson

If you’re looking for a restorative boost of musical theatre then, unlikely as it seems for a show set in 1930s Depression-era America, 42nd Street is a real tonic.

From a contextual viewpoint, a show set in this time period has clear resonance with today’s increasingly challenging economic times, and the core follow-your-dreams theme will always be relatable.

Based on the 1933 film, 42nd Street opened on Broadway in 1980, and has been a popular stage musical, as well as multi-Tony and Olivier award-winner over the ensuing years. Sadler’s Wells and Curve Theatre now present this latest production which opened at Curve in May (and on which performance this review is based) before transferring to Sadler’s Wells and a UK tour.

42nd Street is typically a full-blown razzle-dazzle kind of affair, however, director Jonathan Church notes in the programme that the motives behind this production were to “find new ways of telling the story”, allowing them “to reduce the scale of the production and take it round the UK and the world.”

A projected montage of sepia images documents soaring inflation and soup kitchens, interspersed with glimpses of dancers in rehearsal as the curtain rises and falls. Then comes the announcement that renowned and revered director Julian Marsh (Adam Garcia) is in town and looking to put on a new musical, Pretty Lady.

And thus, we enter the meta-world of the backstage musical as wannabe star Peggy Sawyer (Nicole-Lily Baisden) hot-foots it from the bus from small-town Allentown, Pennsylvania to audition for Pretty Lady and the chance to perform on Broadway. Arriving too late for the audition but in time to make an impression with show lothario Billy Lawlor (Sam Lips), Peggy secures a place as the "spare" chorus girl. Meanwhile, Marsh must contend with the demands of fading prima donna and leading lady Dorothy Brock (Ruthie Henshall) as well as show funder, and Dorothy’s sugar daddy, Abner Dillon (Anthony Ofoegbu). On top of this, Dorothy is also trying to maintain an illicit affair with her long-time love Pat Denning (Michael Praed).

During the out-of-town tryout performance, Peggy bumps into Dorothy, who in turn falls and breaks her ankle. Without its star, Pretty Lady is cancelled, Marsh fires Peggy and all looks bleak for the cast and crew. However, the chorus convinces Marsh to re-hire Peggy to play Dorothy’s starring role for the Broadway opening, the show must go on after all. Will it all come good in the end?

Performances by the whole cast are superb; the West End powerhouses of Ruthie Henshall, Adam Garcia and Sam Lips ignite the stage with star quality. Relative newcomer Nicole-Lily Baisden is perfect as wide-eyed, talented Peggy, her comic moments with Henshall are nicely executed, and Henshall a devilish diva. Les Dennis and Josefina Gabrielle as Pretty Lady’s producers Bert Barry and Maggie Jones work well together, sharing many light moments and one-liners, especially in the fun “Shuffle Off to Buffalo”.

Bill Deamer’s choreography is breathtakingly, stylishly good with thrilling tap routines. Come and meet those dancing feet, indeed.

This production is a melding of many beautiful things. What Robert Jones may have held back in the minimal but clean lines of the art deco set design, he goes overboard with the sumptuous costumes. Shades of blue for rehearsal, black and gold shimmering sequins for after-show parties and a multitude of extravagant show costumes. Ben Cracknell’s lighting design adds yet more layers to the shapes and lines of the period; the red beam of a streetlight in the sultry intro to “42nd Street” is particularly effective.

This is top-quality, feel-good musical theatre and it is impossible not to succumb to the joy of this colourful, charismatic production.

Reviewer: Sally Jack

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