BWW Review: 42ND STREET, Theatre Royal Drury Lane
The curtain rises just high enough to reveal a long line of tapping feet: a thoroughly appropriate intro, as those feet are the real stars of the show. The plot might centre around a leading lady battle, but this loving backstage fairy tale is really a paean to the chorus - the hard-working foundation upon which musical comedy ("the two most glorious words in the English language," per the show) is built.
This is a timely revival: the original movie version of 42nd Street appeared in 1933 at the height of the Depression, and its theatrical shenanigans have an economically challenged, socially anxious backdrop. Julian Marsh is making a directorial comeback, and the success of his show, Pretty Lady, means more than Broadway stardom - it's saving his beleaguered troupe from the breadline.
Which isn't to say this is a sombre kitchen-sink drama; far from it. These jobs may be precious, but there's precious little competition or backbiting among the company. When Peggy Sawyer, a small town gal with big dreams, misses her audition, the other dancers are all too happy to land her a role. Even a serious injury is given a positive spin.
But who can resist a veritable army of beaming dancers tapping up and down a golden staircase, or such iconic lines as "You're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!". It's a dreamy showbiz fable told with winking wit and on a lavish scale: a cast of near 50 bedecked in an array of spangles and feathers, with robust orchestral support.
The 1980 theatrical adaptation of Busby Berkeley's film added several more Harry Warren and Al Dubin songs, and while not all are classics, there's plenty of hummable tunes - including, of course, the earworm title number. Mark Bramble, who co-wrote the book, is on directorial duties here, marshalling one of the fullest and slickest ensembles currently in the West End.
It's a joy to see the show back in its original London home, and Bramble wisely makes a virtue of its old-fashioned form - outlandish clichés and dubious gender politics (one lyric advises girls to "Keep young and beautiful if you want to be loved") are delivered with camp relish.
There are fabulous costumes from Roger Kirk, and Douglas W. Schmidt's retro design neatly elides theatre and reality: in a cleverly lit (by Peter Mumford) set-piece, dancers pop out of seemingly artificial windows. It's also achingly meta, with gags about seat prices and disguising their star name's lack of dance ability.
Said star, Sheena Easton, certainly has the presence for demanding fur-clad diva Dorothy Brock, who's juggling a show-backing Texan sugar daddy and an insatiable toy boy. Easton bridges the gap - created by a thin book - between Dorothy's purring villainy and later empathy, and puts over the songs with feeling, if rather too much quavering vibrato.
Clare Halse is delightful as Peggy, inexperienced and accident-prone yet brimming with natural talent. When the character's dancing is praised to the high heavens, the actress must deliver, and Halse certainly does: her taps are crisp, bright and beautifully articulated, each one clear as a bell.
Tom Lister is convincing as the tyrannical director who gradually regains his love of theatre (though his pep talks remain thoroughly alarming), and there's plenty of enjoyable support, including Stuart Neal as tenor Billy, "one of Broadway's better juveniles", who strokes the air whenever he says his name as if seeing it up in lights; Jasna Ivir as the quick-witted veteran writer; and Emma Caffrey as voracious chorus girl Anytime Annie, who "only said no once, and then she didn't hear the question".
One-liners aside, the script is firmly secondary to Randy Skinner's whopping numbers. "Lullaby of Broadway" begins as an intimate entreaty and ends with the whole jazz hand-waving cast packing out a train station; Skinner also uses shadow play and nods to Busby Berkeley by employing a giant mirror to show intricate formations.
The climactic number has everything from detailed a cappella work and bluesy tap trading to an unstoppable argument for the power of the ensemble: those "specks of dust" who together make magic. Peggy may have graduated from chorine to star, but she still represents their spirit. Escapist fare, yes, but I predict happy feet and even happier audiences.
Photo credit: Brinkhoff & Moegenburg