London is blessed with two helpings of Broadway magic at the moment. Hot on the heels of the sublime An American in Paris comes the revival of this musical based on the 1933 film of the same name.
But while An American in Paris moves you to tears with its sheer grace and elegance, you get more bangs for your buck with 42nd Street, which goes for full-on spectacle and jazz hands galore.
It opens with auditions for a new musical called Pretty Lady. Tough producer Julian Marsh (Tom Lister) is staging it to star acid-tongued prima donna Dorothy Brock (Sheena Easton), notorious in the business for her lack of dance prowess. Hopeful girls and boys tap their little hearts out for a break. This is America in the grip of the Great Depression so it’s only a ball change between chorus line and bread line for these kids.
When Brock breaks her ankle, young Peggy Sawyer (Clare Halse), who only made it into the chorus at the last minute, steps up to take over the lead role.
Apart from a romantic subplot involving Brock and her toy boy, that’s pretty much it story-wise. It’s the quintessential backstage, show-within-a-show musical that offers no surprises. But it’s easy to ignore the paper-thin plot when the big production numbers bring such a warm glow.
Clare Halse and company (photos by Brinkhoff/Moegenburg)
Through each familiar and hummable tune (We’re in the Money, Lullaby of Broadway, Keep Young and Beautiful), the pizzazz of Roger Kirk’s costumes and Randy Skinner’s choreography increases a notch until the big finish on the title song: a display of perfectly timed dance by the 50-strong company that takes the breath away and bought the audience to its feet on the night I went.
Yes, it’s as camp as a row of tents, but it’s a celebration of that and within the kitsch there is also knowingness. When the chorus are dressed as giant flowers, it’s done with a nod and a wink that seems to say: isn’t this just all too gorgeous for words?
Sheena Easton, making her West End debut, needs to loosen up a bit in the role of Dorothy, but there are no question marks over her voice when she displays a terrific range on a series of solos and duets, including the dramatic Boulevard of Broken Dreams.
Clare Halse is a pocket rocket as Peggy, Lister is a commanding presence as Marsh, and there are fine contributions from Stuart Neal as Billy Lawlor and nice comedy touches from Jasna Ivir and Christopher Howell.
The show is back at the same theatre where it had its UK premiere 33 years ago. It became the stuff of theatrical legend when life imitated art: a teenage Catherine Zeta-Jones stepped from the chorus to take the role of Peggy after the lead actress and her understudy both fell ill. That time round it won the Olivier Award for best musical and I think it’s fair to assume that it will be up there competing with An American In Paris in 2018, although a little show called Hamilton might pip them to the post.