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Review of 42nd Street at Sadler’s Wells

It’s tempting to think there’s a paper-thin storyline going on, but 42nd Street has something to say about the pursuit of ambitions and dreams – there must be people like Peggy Sawyer (Nicole-Lily Baisden) in practically every industry, keen and enthusiastic youngsters who want to impress. This drama about drama has more realism in it than all the song and dance routines, which provide more than an element of escapism, would suggest.

42ND STREET. Ruthie Henshall 'Dorothy Brock'. Photo Johan Persson.
42ND STREET. Ruthie Henshall ‘Dorothy Brock’. Photo Johan Persson.

Sawyer becomes the unlikely star of Pretty Lady, the Broadway show (whose theatre is on 42nd Street, y’see) being directed by Julian Marsh (Adam Garcia), but it’s not by way of being a demanding diva. How intriguing to find a narrative where cooperation and a willingness to listen are key to Sawyer’s success, rather than pushing back against the established order and trying to do everything her own way.

In its portrayal of Marsh as a hard taskmaster, demanding 8:00am starts from his cast and crew (of course, there are many other people in many other workplaces who start earlier than that) and pushing for perfection, the musical asserts that making it in the live entertainment industry is primarily achieved through sustained effort, and to some extent, personal sacrifice: there is no gain without pain. Marsh does not, however, burn the midnight oil every night – in an early scene the company is dismissed at a reasonable hour, and in the final moments of the show he expresses interest in joining an opening night afterparty, and congratulates people rather than giving them directorial notes.

The show is a throwback to a time when, for instance, encouragements to do better were just that – I can imagine someone like Marsh these days being subjected to accusations of bullying and harassment. That said, Garcia’s Marsh is somewhat subtler than the script suggests the character should be. At one point, Ruthie Henshall’s Dorothy Brock tells him there is no need to shout. Just as well he wasn’t shouting in the first place.

Bill Deamer’s choreography is a joy to witness, with the show rightly saving its best dancing for last, allowing the production to build to a rousing crescendo. ‘We’re In The Money’ in the first half might be a little jarring in constrained economic times at the time of writing, but context is important: the show is set in 1933 – that is, during the Great Depression. At some point in the second half, any semblance of a plot is suspended, with number after number of exquisite song and dance: it’s a long wait for anyone waiting for the narrative to resume.

Sam Lips as Billy Lawlor, the male lead in Pretty Lady, was in fine form both vocally and physically, making seemingly light work of the dance routines. The costumes (Robert Jones) were increasingly sparkly, and the lighting (Ben Cracknell) increasingly dazzling as the evening went on. Jennifer Whyte ably conducts an orchestra completely devoid of string instruments – some of the musical numbers sound less lush than they could have as a result. Perfection comes in the form of Ian Dickinson and Gareth Tucker’s sound design – every lyric and line of spoken dialogue could be distinctly heard.

This is not a radical reinterpretation or reimagining of a show that premiered a generation ago and is set in a generation before that. The temptation is to make comparisons to the 2017 revival at Theatre Royal Drury Lane (that is, well within living memory), though it’s worth bearing in mind this is essentially the London leg of a UK tour as opposed to an open-ended West End residency. It remains a spectacle, executed to a very high standard, and in the end, is entertaining with a capital E.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

This iconic song-and-dance spectacular features a hit parade of toe-tapping songs, including the title number, “We’re In The Money”, “Lullaby of Broadway”, “Shuffle Off To Buffalo” and “I Only Have Eyes For You”. 42nd STREET is a timeless and inspiring showbiz fairy tale that combines breath-taking tap dance routines, backstage intrigue, classic romance and delightful comedy to dazzling effect.

Fresh off the bus from small-town America, young and beautiful Peggy Sawyer arrives in New York City dreaming of her name in lights. She quickly catches the eye of a big-time director and lands a spot in the chorus line of Broadway’s newest show…and when the leading lady gets injured, Peggy gets her shot at stardom.

42nd STREET has music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Al Dubin, and book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, based on the novel by Bradford Ropes. Original direction and dances were by Gower Champion. The show was originally produced on Broadway by David Merrick.

The cast includes Ruthie Henshall as Dorothy Brock, Adam Garcia as Julian Marsh, Les Dennis as Bert Barry Nicole Lily Baisden as Peggy Sawyer, Michael Praed as Pat Denning, Josefina Gabrielle as Maggie Jones, Sam Lips as Billy Lawlor, with Erica-Jayne Alden, George Beet, Charlie Bishop, Briana Craig, Ashleigh Graham, Alyn Hawke, Aimee Hodnett, Connor Hughes, Sarah-Marie Maxwell, Ben Middleton, Benjamin Mundy, Anthony Ofoegbu and Jessica Wright.

This new production is directed by Jonathan Church (Singin’ in the Rain, The Drifters Girl) with choreography and design by Olivier Award winners Bill Deamer and Rob Jones, lighting design by Ben Cracknell, sound design by Ian Dickinson and Gareth Tucker, video design by Jon Driscoll, musical supervision by Jennifer Whyte and orchestrations by Larry Blank.

42nd Street
Sadler’s Wells, London
7 Jun 2023 – 2 Jul 2023

Mon 16 Oct – Sat 21 Oct 2023
42nd Street at Opera House Manchester

Mon 18 Sep – Sat 23 Sep 2023
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