Sadler’s Wells was in full swing for the opening night of 42nd Street. Red carpet, paparazzi and velvet ropes graced Roseberry Avenue, adding a giddy razzmatazz to this high-kicking comeback. The show was created in 1980, based on the 1933 movie of the same name. The Broadway production won Tony Awards for Best Musical and Choreography, becoming a long-running hit. It wowed London in 1984 (winning the Olivier Award for Best Musical), launching the career of a teenage Catharine Zeta-Jones. In a mirror to the plot of 42nd Street, Zeta-Jones was elevated from chorus girl to West End legend when both the lead actress AND her understudy fell ill. Jones stepped up and a star was born.
In a cynical era of irony, apathy and algorithms, are people really in the mood for a cheery homage to old school showbiz? If they aren’t, this might be the tonic for weary souls numbed by descending dystopia.
Where other classic musicals have undergone contemporary updates, director Jonathan Church has kept this show rooted in its 1930s vibes. The book, by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble is wincingly corny, with sporadic flashes of wit. The characters are crudely drawn and lack authentic depth, but the cast imbue them with such gusto that it’s like watching an epic art deco cartoon.
It’s a perfect distraction. We are here for the sheer spectacle. There’s no space for cerebral gymnastics, this is SHOWBUSINESS! Sing your heart out, dance your feet off, smile a mile wide and work your way to the top- that’s the message, if there is one. 42nd Street is the American Dream via Broadway and it’s a pleasure to just hand yourself over to the escapist nonsense.
The sets are sleek and evocative of the era, elegant but simple backdrops for the costumes, which are sensational. Robert Jones (Set & Costume Designer) seems to have channelled Midas and Edith Head for this show. Everything shimmers with high-end opulence. The glittering garbs combined with the waves of sound from an orchestra of tap-dancing feet is a joyful sensory overload. It’s like theatrical MDMA- you find yourself grinning inanely at the ecstatic blitz on the senses.
Ruthie Henshall is excellent as ageing diva Dorothy Brock. She is camp, imperious and often hilarious, but brings impressive levity when she sings the classic, I Only Have Eyes for You. Henshall is joined on this song by Sam Lips, playing Billy Lawler. That man can sing! Lips was flawless, roof-raising and awesome to hear.
Adam Garcia is reliable as hard-nosed director Julian Marsh, but it seems like a crime to have such a great dancer in a role where he barely gets to shake a leg. Garcia briefly showcases some graceful moves in the last number, but perhaps it’s fitting that he’s now the teacher, not a tapper. It’s 23 years since he broke hearts with a bar-top strip tease in Coyote Ugly. He’s still got it though.
Curveball casting came in the shape Michael Praed who plays Dorothy Brock’s lover, Pat Denning. It took a double check in the program to check that it was the same Praed who starred in the cult ‘80s TV show Robin of Sherwood. It IS ‘the hooded man’.
Nicole-Lily Baisden plays Peggy Sawyer with the perfect mix of naïve enthusiasm, ambition and latent talent waiting to be unleashed. She is the spirit of the show and delivers it with nuclear charm. Her smile could light up every street in Hollywood.
42nd Street is fabulous fun, and it sends you into the night with a head full of toe tapping tunes and happy dance in your step.
42nd Street is at Sadler’s Wells until 2nd July. https://www.sadlerswells.com/whats-on/42nd-street/
Reviewer: Stewart Who?
Reviewed: 14th June 2023
North West End UK Rating: