Review by Daz Gale
The annual big summer musical at Sadler’s Wells is always something to look forward to with South Pacific and Singin’ In The Rain entertaining audiences (and both blowing me away) over the past two years. For this year’s musical it’s a big production of a truly iconic show as 42nd Street returns to London before shuffling off on a huge UK and Ireland tour. It has some big (tap) shoes to fill though when compared with not just last year’s summer musical at Sadler’s but the still quite recent West End revival which remains one of my personal favourite shows I’ve seen. That said, I was keen to see what this new production could bring to an absolute classic – so let’s get on with it and meet those dancing feet.
The stage musical adaptation of 42nd Street was first seen on Broadway in 1980 and arrived in the West End four years later. Based on the 1933 movie (itself based on the 1932 novel by Bradford Ropes), it has seen multiple revivals in the decades since it premiered, most recently concluding a two-year run at Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 2019. The show tells the story of a brand new fictional musical ‘Pretty Lady’ as it embarks on its journey to the Broadway stage with its leading characters including Dorothy Brock – a star who isn’t quite as talented as the others on that stage, and new chorus girl Peggy Sawyer who is keen to get started in the industry but has no idea how big her star is about to shine.
Produced by Curve who are known for their high quality and often bold productions of well-loved musicals, with Billy Elliot and Beautiful two recent examples, this latest production of 42nd Street is no exception, exhibiting exceptional production value that will adapt itself for the size of the stages it visits on the tour that follows this London season. Robert Jones set design keeps a backstage aesthetic that effortlessly transforms into scenes from ‘Pretty Lady’ and back to various places backstage going from glitzy to drab in a mere moment, but always visually exciting. Roberts costume designs are equally beautiful, notably different enough from the most recent West End production but still distinctive in their appearance so they have no trouble fitting in.
Jonathan Church directs the action beautifully, making beautiful use of the space, but it is Bill Deamers choreography and musical staging that makes 42nd Street burst with life. While keeping certain elements of the show from Gower Champion’s original direction and choreograraphy, Bill has added his own creations into the mix to form fresh and new sequences that always keep the genius level he is known for but this time to even more jaw-dropping effect.
42nd Street is nothing without its dance sequences and here it is every bit as sensational as you would hope – from the title number ‘42nd Street’ to a quite possibly better than ever ‘We’re In The Money’, it’s these big dance numbers that really elevates this show into something special and the choices in this production are every bit worthy of the shows timeless legacy.
Every production element in 42nd Street is executed flawlessly with particularly inspired use of lighting from Ben Cracknell – especially in one musical number which sees an incredibly rapid use of spotlights from one cast member to the other, all delivered with expert precision. Jon Driscolls projection adds a new element to the show, transforming the stage in a way I imagine will suit it on the road around the UK, while the crystal clear sound design from Ian Dickinson and Gareth Tucker allows the glorious sound of the tap numbers to play out to its full potential.
42nd Street is a classic and a big part of that is due to its content. Michael Stewart and Mark Brambles book takes a fairly thin premise and squeezes it for everything it’s worth, fabulously balancing the show within a show structure without ever confusing matters. As for the music from Harry Warren and lyrics from Al Dubin, they are as timeless as it gets with many recognisable songs multiple generations have grown up with. ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’, ‘Shuffle Off To Buffalo’ , ‘We’re In The Money’ and ‘Keep Young And Beautiful’ all performed phenomenally. As for ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ and ‘42nd Street’ itself, these are among some of the greatest musical theatre songs ever written and as such are obvious standouts during this show.
I’ve established the basic essence of 42nd Street is fantastic enough and this new production more than lives up to its high standard and, thankfully, the cast are also at the same level with some truly outstanding talents making up the characters in this production. Ruthie Henshall is at her fabulous best as Dorothy Brock. Having to reign in her own remarkable talents to reflect Dorothys less than blessed dancing abilities, she is an absolute marvel to behold – comic and captivating. A force to be reckoned with, she is suitably missed in the second act when she only makes a fleeting appearance.
Adam Garcia delights with an energetic performance as Julian Marsh. Played more likable than the last production I have seen with certain elements of his character toned down, Adam gives a commanding performance which culminates with him showcasing his own theatrical gifts at the climax of the show. Josefina Gabrielle and Les Dennis form a formidable double act as Maggie Jones and Bert Barry with precise comic timing and performances that never fail to raise a smile. Josefina in particular is a revelation, making the most out of a role that sometimes gets lost in certain productions but completely stands out in this one.
Nicole-Lily Baisden swaps one tap-dancing show for another. While she may have wowed audiences with her sweet performance in Anything Goes, she really gets to showcase her impressive talents here in a truly winning performance as Peggy Sawyer. An incredible dancer with bundles of charisma, she gives an assured and likable performance that easily eclipsed some of the bigger names in the cast and left no doubt who the true star of this production is and deservedly gave her the final bow (righting the wrong of the previous production).
Sam Lips gives a fine performance as Billy Lawlor, displaying a beautiful singing voice while Alyn Hawke is another standout as Andy Lee. A show like 42nd Street relies on its ensemble to bring it to life and with that in mind, every single performer in this cast is amazing in their own right. The ability to work together like a well-oiled machine, the precise nature of it is a testament to their abilities as performers in what must be one of the hardest working and greatest casts I have ever witnessed.
Markedly different from the 2017 West End revival but still distinctively 42nd Street, this latest production breathes new life into the show with inspired choices. All production elements come together seamlessly and flawlessly to create a show as spectacular as ever. When you factor in the truly stunning cast, you have a show that is impossible to fault. This is up there with the greatest productions of 42nd Street and in some respects might be better than ever before. Absolutely perfect, this is musical theatre at its very best.
42nd Street plays at Sadler’s Wells until 2nd July. Tickets from https://www.sadlerswells.com/whats-on/42nd-street/
It then tours the UK and Ireland until 28th October with dates and tickets at https://www.42ndstreettour.com
Photos by Johan Persson