Review: 42nd Street

The ensemble of 42nd Street
RATING: ★★★

It's hard to believe that 42nd Street first premiered on Broadway in 1980 even if it is based on a 1933 film because it feels like an old school pre-war Broadway musical. With stunning tap dancing, flashy costumes, and gorgeous sets, it's almost easy to overlook the slightly cringe-inducing plot. Whatever you think of the merits of the show itself, it's hard to deny that the production at Theatre Royal Drury Lane is a great bit of fun.

The plot of 42nd Street follows bright-eyed Pennsylvania girl Peggy Sawyer who arrives in New York desperate to find a role on Broadway. Luckily, her dreams are backed up by talent and she finds a role in the ensemble of Pretty Lady. When the show's prima donna Dorothy Brock is injured, Peggy gets her chance. Throw in some romantic intrigue, mainly with the gruff director Julian Marsh, and some cast drama and you've got a classic Broadway musical.

The show is kind of a jukebox musical  with songs from Dubin and Warren's shows in addition to the original film. Personal favourites include "Young and Healthy", "I Only Have Eyes for You", and of course the classic "Lullaby of Broadway". It's worth noting that the lyrics of "Young and Beautiful" feel particularly outdated.

The show's best asset is its tap dancing without doubt. It's the kind of dance that's hard to find in the West End these days and is absolutely stunning. (In truth, it made me regret quitting tap dancing lessons when I was eight.) There's also something about having a dance ensemble of this size, another thing not many shows can boast. The show is truly at its best during its dance numbers.

Clare Halse and Tom Lister
For me, the plot feels rather outdated, particularly in today's atmosphere of the #MeToo movement. I was uncomfortable with director Julian Marsh's treatment of young naive Peggy Sawyer as he isn't particularly kind to her other than kissing her quite a bit and rather suddenly. It almost felt a bit to workplace harassment to me as he's completely in a power position over her and doesn't seem to ask for her input on their relationship...ever. To me, it's one of those shows (like Carousel) that could use a bit of a rewrite of the book to update it for modern audiences, especially in its treatment of women. 

Pop singer Lulu has recently joined the cast in the role of Dorothy Brock, the self-centered leading lady of the show within the show. While she has charisma in spades and brings a lovely diva performance to the role, her voice does not seem quite up to the part. It felt like she was struggling through several of her songs though her duet with Clare Halse, "About a Quarter to Nine", was surprisingly lovely.

Clare Halse is truly the star of this show as Peggy Sawyer. Her tap dancing is astonishingly good and she's utterly charming with a lovely voice as well. It's hard to imagine anyone playing the role better and I can't understand how she didn't get an Olivier nomination for her performance because she's a true triple threat. (It also annoys me that she doesn't get the last bow.)

Director Julian Marsh is played by Tom Lister and while I don't like the character at all, he does the part very well. His voice seems almost too wonderful to be in a role with very little singing.

One of the amazing sets
New cast member Ashley Day plays Billy Lawlor, the show within the show's star tenor who also has feelings for Peggy. Both his dancing and singing are great and his charm certainly won me over (although I've seen it before and knew the ending, I was somehow wishing for him and Peggy to end up together).

Emma Caffrey stands out as chorus girl Annie who befriends Peggy and fights for her to get her chance. She also is a very talented tapper and her number "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" is a delightful (if seemingly random) bit of the show.

One of of the best parts of the show is the beautiful design. The sets, designed by Douglas W. Schmidt, are lovely from the rehearsal room to the incredibly cool dressing rooms set seen in the picture above. The costumes are glorious period pieces ranging from cute rehearsal wear to glitzy costumes, designed by Roger Kirk. My only complaint is that there were a couple of times it felt almost painful to look at the stage it was so bright!

Despite my issues with the show's book (and one of the leading ladies not quite being able to handle her role), 42nd Street is a fun night out at the theatre. My own personal tastes tend away from these light-hearted 1930s musicals, but even I was had a great time thanks to the talented cast, glorious design, and fun dance numbers.

Photo Credit: Brinkhoff & Moegenburg 

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