42nd Street

Music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Al Dubin, book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble
Jonathan Church Theatre Productions, David Ian, David Mirvish and Leicester Curve
Leeds Grand Theatre

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Nicole-Lily Basiden (Peggy) Credit: Johan Persson
The cast Credit: Johan Persson
The cast Credit: Johan Persson

The backstage musical—in which the central storyline revolves around the production of a stage show—remains a staple of the theatre, encompassing such classics as Show Boat, Kiss Me, Kate, Gypsy, Cabaret and A Chorus Line. Instrumental in popularising this type of narrative—albeit on film—was the legendary director Busby Berkeley, who lent his creative genius to such films as Footlight Parade and Dames. The best-known of these films remains 42nd Street, which celebrates its 90th anniversary this year and was first brought to the stage in 1980.

It’s 1933 and America is still weathering the economic downturn brought about by the Wall Street Crash. Audiences are desperate for escapism, hence the popularity of large-scale musicals with silly plots and extravagant dance routines. Peggy Sawyer (Nicole-Lily Basiden), a naïve but ambitious chorus girl, manages to get a part in a new show starring the great Prima Donna Dorothy Brock (Samantha Womack) whose dancing skills cannot match her vocal prowess. Will Peggy’s natural talent win through in the end?

The simplicity of 42nd Street’s plot is both an asset and a weakness. On the one hand, there is something undeniably enjoyable about watching an underdog overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles in order to realise their dreams. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that we see this archetypal story played over and over again on stage and screen.

On the other hand, the stripped-back nature of the narrative means that some dramatic possibilities are not fully explored. For example, I was surprised that the budding romance between Peggy and leading man Billy Lawlor (Sam Lips) was given such short shrift.

Despite my reservations about the storyline, however, I still enjoyed 42nd Street a hell of a lot. While I found the show a bit thin dramatically, I cannot deny that it succeeds as a musical spectacle—full of memorable tunes, impeccable dance routines, opulent costumes, eye-catching sets and dynamic lighting.

The performers are also impressive. Nicole-Lily Basiden brings infectious charm and energy to the role of Peggy, and Sam Lips delivers his song-and-dance numbers with effortless panache. Samatha Womack is poised and intimidating as the insecure Dorothy, delivering a touching rendition of “I Only Have Eyes for You”.

Michael Praed brings gravitas to the production as Julian, the seasoned Broadway director, and there are delightful turns from Les Dennis and Faye Tozer as the show’s writers.

42nd Street offers an affectionate glimpse of the hard work and resilience which goes into making a stage musical. This—combined with an immortal songbook by Harry Warren and Al Dubin (“Keep Young and Beautiful”, “We’re in the Money” and, of course, the title song)—makes 42nd Street a rewarding piece of theatrical escapism.

Reviewer: James Ballands

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