Theatre du Chatelet, Paris – until 8 January 2017
There can be few more impressive openings to a musical than Stephen Mear‘s treatment of 42nd Street. With the orchestra (magnificent under Gareth Valentine‘s baton) having played the overture’s first few pages the curtain rises teasingly, just a yard or so, to reveal a stage full of dancing feet tapping out the show’s melodies. With a company numbering nigh on 40, the sight and sound of this unexpected treat, performed with pinpoint, perfectly drilled precision, is simply breathtaking. Rarely has a show set its stall out so impressively in the overture and then gone on to exceed expectations as the evening plays out.
The story behind 42nd Street is a classic, corny even, meta-musical fairytale. It is 1933 and Peggy Sawyer, a young and gifted dancer from Allentown, Pennsylvania who has no showbiz experience wants to be cast in the new Broadway show Pretty Woman. Its genius but tyrannical director Julian Marsh is on his uppers after the Wall Street crash and in desperate need of a hit. Marsh overlooks Sawyer, and casts Dorothy Brock, a leading lady of years gone by as his star because Brock’s sugar-daddy boyfriend has bankrolled Pretty Woman’s production costs.
As love rivalries smoulder amongst the cast, Brock breaks her leg at the last minute. As Marsh is about to close the show, the ensemble persuade Marsh him to choose the talented Sawyer as Brock’s replacement and of course she and the show become an instant hit. Whilst the story may be corny, Mear who directs and choreographs has demanded production values that are anything but. Emerging talent Monique Young plays Sawyer and she brings a coquettish insouciance to the role matched only by her sensational footwork, handling her vocal solos with a confident charm and magnificent poise.
Sharing the honours as the show’s other leading lady is Ria Jones‘ Brock. Mear knows Jones well (she famously understudied Glenn Close in his Sunset Boulevard earlier this year) and his understanding of the woman’s gift has delivered yet another example of on-stage excellence. Jones hams up Brock wonderfully when she has to, yet shows off the full Rolls-Royce potential of her vocal majesty with her interpretations of I Only Have Eyes For You and the act one closer of the show’s title number. As an aside, Jones is one of those occasional performers on London’s cabaret scene who truly merits the description “unmissable”.
Dan Burton who plays Sawyer’s love interest Billy Lawlor is another of Mear’s regular ingénues, last seen in the West End’s Gypsy. Arguably the best of his generation in musical theatre dance, Burton has a grace in his movement that has to be seen to be believed alongside perfectly pitched, mellifluous vocals. Alexander Hanson’s Marsh completes the quartet of key roles and he brings a believable gravitas to a part that can so easily become a cliché in less talented hands. Elsewhere in this magnificent company, Jennie Dale (yet another Mear regular) shines in support as Maggie Jones.
It’s not just the cast that make this production quite so special. Valentine’s orchestra is lavishly furnished, while Peter McKintosh’s sets display an imaginative detail that can all too often these days be reduced to an economy of projected images, but here at the Theatre du Chatelet, are displayed in fabulous constructions of steel and backdrop.
And then of course there’s the show’s famously big numbers. Keep Young and Beautiful, We’re in the Money and Lullaby of Broadway are done to a perfect turn. Mear fills McKintosh’s stagings (and Philadelphia’s Broad Street Station, complete with massive working clock stuns on its own) with a plethora of bodies that define flawless synchronised harmony.
The Chatelet’s producers have lavishly and tastefully invested a fortune in their cast and creatives and it shows. If you can beg, borrow or steal a ticket to Paris, go. This production of 42nd Street is quite simply musical theatre perfection – there’s no better show to be seen this side of the Atlantic.
Runs until 8th January 2017