42nd Street (Online review)

42nd Street (Online review)

There is something deliciously comforting about the sound of over fifty pairs of feet all tap dancing in synchronised rhythm and with the huge cast of 42nd Street that is exactly what you get many times over. As a distraction from economic depression the film worked back in 1933, so its release at this present moment is undoubtedly a timely one and a welcome diversion from the gloom of a December afternoon in the middle of a pandemic and predictions of economic disaster. It is, perhaps, the feel-good show par excellence.


Never mind the hokey storyline and the mostly forgettable dialogue (the book is by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble but lifts scenes wholesale from the film) it’s the production numbers that draw you in and keep you longing for more. At the top of the show the curtain rises to reveal feet – just feet – and all of them tapping away as if their life depended on it which in this show it does. For the setting is post Wall Street Crash and jobs are scarce and funding even scarcer; not that you’d know it from the towering sets, many magnificent changes of costume and the sheer numbers of people involved both onstage and off with the fictional Pretty Lady. As per the original Warner Brothers film, 1933 has to be given a glossy sheen to distract from the harsh realities. The chorus line literally need their jobs to survive – outside it’s “Buddy, Can You Spare Me A Dime?” time but inside the theatre every last one of them (director and star turn included) needs the show to go on in order to survive financially or to boost their self-esteem. Fading star Dorothy Brock is trying to make a comeback, as is tyrannical director Julian Marsh. Ironically the only person who doesn’t seem to be bothered by success is young Peggy Sawyer but she, of course, sees to it that everyone else survives just through her sheer natural ability.


For this is the well-worn story of the untried chorus girl who suddenly finds herself headlining the show within a show as the immortal line is uttered: “You’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!” In truth the musical leaves no cliché stone unturned but that is its charm; that and the unforgettable songs of Harry Warren and Al Dubin. Some of these, including three of the biggest numbers, “We’re In the Money”, “Lullaby Of Broadway” and “I Only Have Eyes For You” are actually imported from other films of the early 1930s so in that sense the show (which premiered in 1980) prefigured the trend towards jukebox musicals of the more recent era. The extra numbers are worked seamlessly into the performance and provide further excuses for the extravagant set pieces which pepper the show – courtesy of a large angled mirror we are even treated to a recreation of one of legendary choreographer Busby Berkeley’s routines.


The headline name in the musical is Bonnie Langford who exudes uncertainty veneered with venom as Pretty Lady’s nominal headliner Dorothy Brock. In a strange echo of art imitating life (at least in the fictional world of the internal musical) she loses her position to the young chorus girl, Peggy. And so, the script gives Langford virtually nothing to do in the second half other than to completely rewrite Brock’s personality overnight and make a brief reappearance to duet on “About a Quarter To Nine” sung from a wheelchair! Peggy herself is winningly played by Clare Halse; she is completely sure footed (in all senses) unlike her onstage character. The overbearingly monstrous director is brought to life by Tom Lister who puts Priti Patel in the shade and whose change of character in the latter stages is as unbelievable as Langford’s. Jasna Ivir and Christopher Howell handle the double act comedy routines as writers/producers of Pretty Lady, Jones and Barry; I found them deeply unfunny and self-consciously stagey.


But you can forget all that! It’s the chorus line that really stands out. I counted 44 names in the ensemble credits (surely it should have been 42) and when they start doing their stuff the rest of the creaky moments fade into insignificance as their sheer exuberance and joyful synchronisation sweeps all before it and has the hairs standing up on the back of your neck. If you watch it for those moments and nothing else, you definitely won’t be disappointed.

42nd Street is available this weekend via the Shows Must Go On website – click here. After that it is available on streaming services stage2view – click here – and Broadway HD – click here

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