From its opening overture to its infectious toe-tapping finale, 42nd Street is pure theatre. I don’t actually think shows get more theatrical than this. Chorus guys and gals tap-dance their way through a story about the production of a new musical hit, set in the heart of New York’s legendary theatre district, with one delightfully hummable song after another. Based on the 1933 film, the show first opened on Broadway in 1980, and was revived in 2001. Closer to home, it ran for several years in the West End in the mid-80s, and has enjoyed several national tours. It was revived in the West End in March 2017, in its current home at the majestic Theatre Royal Drury Lane.
Celebrating the golden age of Broadway, the story revolves around the next big show for producer Julian Marsh (Tom Lister), who needs a hit. To help secure this, he casts leading lady Dorothy Brock (Bonnie Langford) because of the financial injection she can bring with her, despite her best years and performances being behind her. As auditions for the chorus are held, young hopeful Peggy Sawyer (Clare Halse) stands out from the crowd, impressing Julian with her voice and fancy footwork. Opening night approaches, but two days before the first curtain, an accident takes Dorothy out of the running and pushes Peggy into the spotlight, to “go out there a nobody, and come back a star!”. (In a fabulous case of life imitating art, this very scenario actually happened to Catherine Zeta-Jones while appearing in the show in 1987, when she was plucked from the chorus and selected to play Peggy when the understudy broke her ankle).
This is a timeless show with timeless songs, for people who love the world of the theatre and the magic it can create. Set in an almost forgotten era unhampered by social media, technology or reality stars, it represents a time when talent meant everything and a great song and dance number was enough to make an audience forget about their troubles and get swept away in the spectacle. It’s a piece that would never be written today, and therefore all the more magical because of it. It is also a brilliant example of what can be achieved when talent, budget and creative vision come together.
Technically the show is…..and I shudder at the very mention of this term….’a jukebox musical’, with it featuring the four songs from the original film plus many of others from films of that era. However, rather than suffering from the shoe-horning that goes on in most of today’s efforts, all of the songs fit brilliantly into the story and serve to move the plot along while allowing one showstopping scene after another. Everyone knows ‘We’re In The Money’, “I Only Have Eyes For You” and ‘Lullaby Of Broadway’, but others such as “Dames” and “Keep Young And Beautiful” also become familiar within a few seconds of these classic melodies.
The production has clearly had no expense spared on it – the big set pieces stay in your mind for a long time after watching the show, particularly the ‘Dames’ section, which includes a ridiculously large mirror and a circle of chorus girls and manages to create the look and feel of the synchronised swimming scenes from the old Ziegfeld Follies films. All of the sets feel grand and luxurious, and help ensure that the show never feels dwarfed or lost on the massive stage of the Theatre Royal. The Regency Club set, the brightly lit signs of 42nd Street itself and of course that staircase (no spoilers here but wow) are particular highlights, among many. The hundreds of costumes are decadent and vibrant, with an incredible range of colour on show. I don’t think there’s a single shade in either nature or Homebase that can’t be seen on that stage.
The direction is slick and fast, with the show zipping along and never dragging despite it’s 2 hour 40 running time (I’ve been in much shorter shows that felt much longer). Yes, if you don’t like tap-dancing then there may be scenes where your attention drifts, but I think even the hardiest of hearts will struggle not to get caught up in the spectacle and energy, especially when the whole ensemble are moving together as one, in perfect unison and synchronicity, without a foot or tap or click out of place. When these talented performers are going full throttle as a single perfect machine, the effect is breath-taking. They work insanely hard on that stage and thoroughly deserve every round of applause they get.
Leading the cast are its four principals – Ashley Day is in full dreamboat mode as Billy Lawlor, with his million dollar smile and twinkle toes, and he swoons and taps his way through his numbers with ease (bonus points also go to whoever put him in a sailor outfit). Emmerdale fans will also recognise Tom Lister, who does well as the stressed out producer. He steers clear of the tap numbers but still gets to close the show with a haunting belting reprise of the show’s title number.
But this show belongs to its two leading ladies. Recently taking over a role played to strong reviews by Sheena Easton (and to lukewarm reviews by Lulu), Bonnie Langford is flawless as Dorothy Brock. She is a born entertainer, who if she were to be tragically cut in half by some wayward farming machinery, would probably have the word “showbusiness” running through her body like a stick of Blackpool rock. A true triple-threat in a world where some performers I’ve seen can scarcely call themselves a single-threat, she is brilliant. It’s a shame that Bonnie doesn’t dance in the show (this is a woman who can still do the splits at 54, let’s not forget), but then the story wouldn’t work. She did however join Clare Halse during the bows and gave us an all-too-fleeting glimpse of her tap talents, which are fantastic. It’s a shame that it didn’t last longer and that this isn’t a regular fixture, as Bonnie clearly loved every second of it and the crowd ate it up. Hopefully they’ll make this a nightly occurrence for the rest of the run. And in a lovely ‘Lion King’ kind of way, things have come full circle, as Bonnie played Peggy on the national tour in the early 90s, so to have her performing now as Dorothy 25 years later is just lovely and a joy to watch.
Dorothy is sidelined for most of Act 2, paving the way in the story for Peggy to shine, and boy does Clare Halse go for it. She is dynamic. Every foot placement, every thrilling series of movements across the stage, the strength of her voice, her chemistry with Tom and Ashley, the sheer joy on her face as she dances….she gives a stellar performance that shows absolutely no signs of fatigue even after 18 months. It’s a career-defining performance that will be incredibly difficult to top in her next role, but I can’t wait to see what that turns out to be.
’42nd Street’ literally doesn’t put a foot wrong, and is an absolute pleasure to watch. It’s a celebration of the level of talent we have in our theatre industry, and I hope it continues to go from strength to strength and enjoy a further life once it taps its way out of town next year. With this closing its doors in January, alongside Kinky Boots and Dreamgirls, the city is losing a lot of sparkle in what is already the most depressing month of the year. I might have to hang a flag at half-mast when three these shows do finally close their doors. They will all be missed, but 42nd Street really is something special, so shuffle on down while you can.
Reviewed by Rob Bartley