42nd Street is a bright, ballsy, Broadway-big hitter of a musical – and it really works.
With a cast of over 50 – most forming the high-kicking, tap-dancing ensemble – London’s newest musical is very much about putting on a show. In both senses.
Narratively, the story follows Julian Marsh (Emmerdale‘s Tom Lister, not afraid to demonstrate he has a serious set of pipes on him), as he sets about to direct Broadway’s newest show, Pretty Lady.
The drama comes from Marsh’s struggles with his prima donna star (Sheena Easton, oozing glorious old Hollywood glamour), plus pressures from his writing team, the producers and their financial backers – not to mention his feelings for chorus girl Peggy Sawyer (a phenomenal Clare Halse), who demonstrates all the potential of a leading lady.
Musically, the main bulk of numbers in 42nd Street form part of Pretty Lady’s repertoire, so you’re often watching a musical-within-a-musical where songs are presented through rehearsal sequences, dress runs and try-outs. Other numbers are given space to breathe “offstage”, taking place in cafes, bars and on the bustling streets of New York’s most famous thoroughfare.
The balance here is delicately handled, so that songs within the construct of Pretty Lady often tell us how the characters are feeling about each other behind-the-scenes too, shining a light on the backstage drama.
For the most part though, the songs are pure show. As the title track tells us, many of them are “bawdy” and “gaudy” – but in a totally good way. We’re in the Money – probably the most recognisable number here – shines, literally, like a lucky penny; elsewhere, big tap numbers like With Plenty of Money and You and the aforementioned titular song are astoundingly good, truly knocking the socks off anything else in the West End in terms of choreography.
Some of the scenery feels notably retro, but it’s charming and in-keeping with the 1930s, end-of-Vaudeville setting. There are some neat, modern tricks, too; which were probably impossible to pull off in the original production. The staging of Keep Young and Beautiful, act two opener There’s a Sunny Side to Every Situation and the gloriously daft Shuffle Off to Buffalo all deserve highlighting, eliciting audible “oohs” and “aahs” from the audience mid-song.
With most of the action taking place in the backstage of a theatre it gives the production plenty of scope to clear the set and expose bare walls as we’re taken into the heart of the rehearsal space – making the dance numbers in particular feel extra big in their delivery (just wait for that curtain call!).
Ultimately, 42nd Street is most fun when its tap-dancing chorus line takes control of the action. Sure, there’s plenty to love in the dialogue and narrative of the wider story – Easton is lightning-quick with her diva-esque putdowns, Jasnir Ivir and Christopher Howell are hilarious as Pretty Lady’s harangued co-writers, and Bruce Montague is having lots of fun as Texan backer Abner Dillon – but it’s the dancers who really hold the heart of the show.
So come and meet those dancing feeing – book your tickets for 42nd Street now.
42nd Street is now showing at Theatre Royal Drury Lane until July. Get your tickets via Ticketmaster.co.uk.