This show has it all – glitz, glamour…and of course, showtunes. Any fan of musical theatre – young and old – should see 42nd Street, a true celebration of the theatre and a masterpiece from start to finish.
The plotline for this production is somewhat familiar – an age-old tale of the underdog done good. 42nd Street follows small-town girl Peggy Sawyer, whose one ambition is to secure a place in the chorus line of Pretty Girl, the hottest new show in town. Of course, to paraphrase Shakespeare, “the course of ambition never did run smooth”, so there was lots of obstacles for our young heroine to overcome to get there – but, thanks to her raw talent, she soon finds herself competing for the spotlight against theatre veteran and diva extraordinaire, Miss Dorothy Brock.
It’s almost like this show is both making fun of theatre but also celebrating it in equal measure – you have the characters depicting satirical stereotypes synonymous with showbiz (like catty chorus lines, demanding directors, and one egregiously eco-centric prima donna), characters that are delivered so perfectly they border on caricatures.
Yet in the midst of this stereotypical world of backstage drama, you have some of the best musical numbers I have ever seen performed on-stage. You have the foot-tappingly jaunty songs that are the perfect ode to 1933, the era in which this show was set. You have staging that is out of this world. You have costumes that wouldn’t look out of place in a mardi-gras festival. And best of all? You have a cast that are so dynamic, so talented, that they could make anything look like an art form.
In my opinion, this 2017 West End revival production of 42nd Street – produced by Austin Shaw and directed by Mark Bramble – has been cast to perfection. Playing the role of the young starley Sawyer is the blonde beauty Clare Halse, whose innocent naivete onstage is only eclipsed by her raw talent. Her voice, while perhaps not the strongest, is melodious, while her dancing is both step-perfect and awe-inspiring. She is dynamite in the dancing sequences, leading the pack with an effortless grace.
Where there is a heroine, there is of course a villainess – and our antagonist is the one and only Bonnie Langford, who plays red-haired vixen Dorothy Brock. Langford so perfectly offers the antidote to Halse’s doe-eyed innocence with the smouldering sensuality of her character, it’s hard to take your eyes off her whenever she’s on stage. Nobody could play the role of Brock with as much gusto, bravado and sheer gravitas as a true diva of the stage – and Langford delivers effortlessly, a role she was born to play.
The male counterparts were also brilliantly cast – Philip Bertioli as the show’s leading man, Billy Lawlor, and Tom Listor in the role of demanding director Julian Marsh, willing to take a chance on an inexperienced showgirl – yet their roles are not as comprehensive as those of their female counterparts, not only in terms of songs performed, but also the complexities of their dance routines. Credit where credit is due though, the male protagonists certainly made a formidable addition to an already stellar cast – but just as a tantalising appetiser to Langford and Halse’s more substantial entré.
The rest of the cast should not be forgotten, either – the ensemble were pitch perfect in every song, delivered some of the best lines in the production, and performed some dance routines that really were feats d’accompli; making intricate tap dance sequences with rapid footwork look effortless. To stage a show inside a show requires every cast member to be pitch-, step-, and book-perfect, which of course they were – every member of this production was a triple threat, which only enhanced the audience’s viewing pleasure.
A cast this good needs mise-en-scène that can hold its own against such talent and not detract from it – and, luckily, this is where the show goes up yet another level.
Never before have I seen such stylised, sleek staging – it was absolutely faultless. Every scene – whether a dance sequence or a piece of dialogue – had been set perfectly and choreographed to a tee, with the vast ensemble always in sync and always aware of the presence of the other performers. One standout scene which really left me speechless was the mirror sequence in the second act, which utilised a giant mirror to reflect the performers’ movements as they performed a floor piece. The result was almost other-worldly in its kaleidoscopic effect, all symmetry and synchronisation which was phenomenal. It is worth watching this show in my opinion just for this sequence alone – as this is a true testament to the care and attention to detail that went into this show to make it a spectacle for the audience. It really is something to behold, and something I will never forget. Kudos to the incredible set designer Douglas W. Schmidt and choreographer Randy Skinner for their perfectly-executed masterpiece.
And what does elaborate, perfectly planned staging need to complete its visual feast for the eyes? Costumes, of course! And how sumptuous these costumes were! Designed by Roger Kirk, each and every costume in the piece was a cross between what you’d expect to find in a little girl’s dress-up box and in the dressing room of a veteran cabaret performer, with fur, sequins and floaty dresses aplenty. And a special nod to the men’s top hats, canes and tails – no show set in the 1930s would be complete without this hallmark.
There really isn’t anything to fault in a production of this magnitude, and with such on-stage and back-stage talent on display. One could say that perhaps such intricate dance routines were almost to the show’s overall detriment – as it was easy to lose oneself in the sensational dancing rather than following the narrative – but if the only potential criticism of this show is that the dancing is too good, I think that tells you everything you need to know!
In conclusion, this show really is a shining example of timeliness theatre at its finest – in all it’s tap-dancing, jazz hands-wielding, sequin-wearing glory.
The glory and grandeur of old Broadway lives on. And it’s address? 42nd Street, New York.
This show is available to stream on YouTube HERE until 7pm on Sunday 6th December.
Reviewer: Hannah Wilde
Reviewed: 4th December 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★