Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London – until 14 October 2017
The ultimate ‘backstage musical’ 42nd Street lifted America from the depression, and its timely arrival at Drury Lane in such majestic style is still an evening of total escapism, total delight as you share the hopes and dreams of fresh-off-the-bus Peggy Sawyer (Clare Halse, bloody marvellous) breaking into the Broadway big-time via Sheena Easton’s broken ankle.
Easton is in fine, warm voice but it’s her young replacement who will tap her way into your heart. How can anyone dance like that? They must start in the cradle. If An American in Paris is an impressionist painting, 42nd Street is a glorious vivid-coloured cartoon.
Amazingly there were only five songs in the 1933 movie, but the Al Warren and Harry Dubin back catalogue delivers fifteen showstoppers from ‘We’re In The Money’ to ‘Shuffle Off to Buffalo’ to ‘Lullaby of Broadway’, each one more overwhelming than the last in Randy Skinner’s megawatt staging now rolled out around the world. Incredible.
If you have only one big musical to budget for, you need to pay your money and take your choice between ballet and tap: An American in Paris is visually luxurious and more unusual, also more conventionally boy-meets-girl romantic. But the dancing is technically faultless in 42nd Street too, you just need to love tap and not mind that the chorus girls are uniformly under size 12 with a lot of ribs on show.
In fact I’m surprised the politically correct brigade aren’t up in arms at this stereotypical glorification of bathing beauties in homage to Busby Berkeley. They could also reference some of the sexism in the lyrics which trade on the mercenary relationship between chorines and their generously provident ‘daddies’ and which doesn’t resonate so well in a more emancipated world.
If An American in Paris is visually an impressionist painting, 42nd Street is a glorious colour-saturated cartoon with costumes ranging from pastel dance wear to rainbow arrays of gowns to blinding gold and silver on the ultimate showbiz staircase. Someone said they should sell Eurostar tickets outside the Dominion after An American in Paris, because they’d be snapped up immediately – but you could sell tap lessons on the steps of Drury Lane, so enthusiastic were the audience coming out.
I’m thrilled that my theatregoing career encompasses both the original 42nd Street here at Drury Lane in 1984, and this even sparklier revival with its glamorous press night attended by the Duchess of Cambridge: I don’t need to make comparisons.
Searching for detail you could argue that although she carries the tunes very well, ex-popster Sheena Easton is not an experienced stage actress and maybe misses the comedy aspect of her role as faded diva Dorothy Brock, when a more conventional musical theatre casting like Sophie-Louise Dann (busy in The Girls) or Janie Dee (booked for Follies) might have nailed both. Actually the comedy is quite uneven, Jasna Ivir chews the scenery as over-the-top scriptwriter Maggie, but she and co-conspirator Christopher Howell don’t really make the ‘double act’ based on real-life musical comedy writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
The plot is a bit scant, too. But there’s the unexpected twist that the girl doesn’t get the guy you expect, and chooses eventually the irascible father figure. But when handsome Tom Lister as demanding impresario Julian Marsh kisses Peggy to give her confidence, half the women and quite a few of the men in Row E were going “me! me!!” – Lister keeps his powder dry a long time but when he finally releases his voice for ‘Lullaby of Broadway’, it’s wonderful.
It’s all wonderful.