Some believe that size isn’t everything. Clearly not the producers of this revival of 42nd Street. They measure in feet rather than inches.
It arrives with a cast of 55 for goodness sake. 42 of them tapping at once. That’s 84 feet (should your maths not be up to it). When did you last, or ever, see that? They are spoiling us for other shows. It might be time to invest in a Covent Garden cobblers.
Can you imagine what life is like backstage? Frenzied costume changes and locating the correct pair of tap shoes in areas as crowded as a Southern Rail train. Are they hot-desking the dressing rooms or sub-dividing them? Is Sheena Easton‘s partitioned off with a makeshift sugar wall?
Julian Marsh (Tom Lister from Emmerdale apparently) is putting on a new Broadway show, Pretty Lady. He’s been saddled with a leading lady, the deliciously difficult diva Dorothy Brock (Easton) who is slightly past her sell-by date and because she’s hardly a modern girl, struts around with her rich elderly beau, who is also the show’s backer, Abner Dillon (Bruce Montague, Wendy Craig’s love interest in Butterflies) in tow. Brock breaks her ankle just before the opening. Step in chorine Peggy Sawyer (Clare Halse). But can she learn the part with not much more than a morning’s training, save the show and make the Big Time?
It’s knowingly daft and dated. The plot’s as thin as one of many diaphanous chorus girls’ costumes and as corny as a chiropodist’s waste bin. Though this matters not a jot. We were dazzled, and then some. Designers Douglas W Schmidt (sets) and Roger Kirk (costumes) have taken the “gaudy” lyric from the title song literally and cranked up the dial to “over-the-top”. Don’t come expecting subtlety. But do expect a revolve which spends most of the night with its feet up. How extravagant is that?
The music and lyrics by Harry Warren and Al Dubin respectively, are raided from their back catalogue and the original 1933 film, which surprisingly only has about 5 numbers to lend out. Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble co-wrote the book. The later directs this version with Randy Skinner choreographing the hoardes with military precision. He must be an even bigger slave driver than Julian Marsh is purported to be. The tap dancing is on a scale Phil had never seen before. If you like tap, you’ll love this, if you don’t like tap then never darken our doors again.
From the terrific tappy terpsichorean treat of the opening number the bar is set somewhat high, and apart from Brock’s unlucky break, rarely puts a foot wrong. Halse is a delightful Peggy; Phil’s eyes only saw a young Debbie Reynolds, funny, charming and a stonking hoofer. Stuart Neal as Billy Lawlor taps as though his life depends on it, Lister’s Marsh comes with a strong singing voice and there’s a good supporting cast, especially Christopher Howell, Emma Caffrey and the wonderful Jasna Ivir as warm-hearted wise-cracker Maggie.
Musical Director Jae Alexander deserves special mention for leading his big brassy orchestra (very good sound) and beaming at the audience as if he was having as much fun as we are. Easton’s voice is surprisingly rich and handles comedy grumpiness well enough, though Phil couldn’t help imagining someone like Megan Mullally in the role. And if Easton all but disappears for most of Act 2 – she works till 5 past 9 (approx) – you don’t really notice as the chorus, despite being light on their feet, take over the heavy lifting.
Phil saw the original Broadway and West End versions (the latter at Drury Lane too) and a very underwhelming touring version a few years back. This one was (42nd) streets ahead. The finale slaps you around the chops with so much dazzlement it is impossible to resist.
And top marks for an announcement about switching off phones and seeing an usher enforcing it. The ushers were hushing.
It’s not often we exchange enthusiasm with random audience members upon leaving the theatre but we did. If the producers can make this work economically, and we assume sums have been done, they should be humming “We’re in the Money” for a long time to come.