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‘Few productions pull it off quite as spectacularly as 42nd Street’

Bonnie Langford 42nd StreetA show about a show. That is as much as can be said about the plotline for 42nd Street. Further particulars are not much else to write home about either – a fresh-faced performer, Peggy Sawyer (Clare Halse) shows up for auditions, impresses the people that need to be impressed in order for her to land a part in the show. Either by accident or by design (the production suggests the former, but you never know) the leading lady in a new show, Dorothy Brock (Bonnie Langford) is indisposed.

For some reason, a designated understudy was never assigned (did they really not have understudies on Broadway in 1933?) to the leading role by director Julian Marsh (Tom Lister). At the risk of being overanalytical about a production that is best enjoyed by sitting back and letting the musical numbers and extraordinary choreography (Randy Skinner), not having an understudy, cover or standby in place is not necessarily Marsh’s fault, even if it does fall within his responsibilities: there are, as the audience is informed, a large number of contractual terms and conditions that came with securing the services of Brock.

Step forward Sawyer, who needs some coaxing, not only by Marsh but apparently by most of the company of his new show, ‘Pretty Lady’, to return to the stage – but not as a member of the ensemble, but in the leading role. Life imitated art earlier in 2018, when the standby Dorothy Brock in 42nd Street, Steph Parry, took to the stage in a role she understudied previously in the London production of Mamma Mia! after Caroline Deverill was indisposed – the walk from the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane to the Novello Theatre can be done in less than two minutes. Parry even took on the role of Dorothy Brock full time over the summer in between Lulu leaving the production and Bonnie Langford starting in it.

There isn’t a weak link in this large – no, extra-large, or maybe even XXL – show. I counted fifty-eight headshots in the programme, and a nineteen-piece band is under the baton of Jae Alexander. There are fourteen dressers – one can only imagine how frantic it can get backstage during a scene change.

The costumes (Roger Kirk) capture the glitz and glamour of the 1930s, as does the staging. The dancing is a sight to behold. The precision, energy and vitality make this production a work of art. But it isn’t just about getting it right. Some light relief from the relentless drilling of Marsh’s ‘on, on, on’ approach comes with co-writers and producers of Pretty Lady (the show within the show) Maggie Jones (Jasna Ivir) and Bert Barry (Christopher Howell) taking to the stage playing characters in a ‘just married’ scene. And while in one sense it’s all about Peggy Sawyer, the production doesn’t let the audience forget that it takes teamwork to make a show happen, as Sawyer, like Brock before her, is time and again surrounded by other dancers aplenty.

A lyric or two does, to contemporary ears, sound a tad odd. ‘Keep Young and Beautiful’, for instance, begins thus: “What’s cute about little cutie? / It’s her beauty, not brains.” Oh dear. But this, as with Marsh’s shouty management style, should be understood in the 1930s context, and are in any case thankfully overshadowed by the sheer scale and spectacle of a memorable night out at the theatre. As a fellow theatregoer said to me at the interval, “I have no complaints.” A fabulous show, and if ‘musical comedy’ rank among “the finest words in the English language”, few productions pull it off quite as spectacularly as 42nd Street. Not to be missed.

5 Star Rating

Review by Chris Omaweng

42nd STREET, is the song and dance, American dream fable of Broadway, featuring the iconic songs 42nd Street, We’re In The Money, Lullaby of Broadway, Shuffle Off To Buffalo, Dames and I Only Have Eyes For You. With the West End’s biggest cast, this is a musical like no other, entertainment doesn’t get bigger than this.

Young Peggy Sawyer is fresh off the bus from small-town America and just another face in the chorus line on Broadway’s newest show. But when the leading lady gets injured, Peggy might just have the shot at stardom she’s always dreamed of.

42nd Street
Theatre Royal Drury Lane
Booking to 5th January 2019

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