Thursday, August 24, 2017

'42nd Street' by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble with songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin

24 August 2017

‘42nd Street’ was a 1933 film directed by Lloyd Bacon with songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, and choreography by the inimitable Busby Berkeley. It was the classic feelgood backstage musical about the chorus girl who steps in for an indisposed leading lady and becomes a star – designed to cheer up depression-era America. ‘42nd Street’ didn’t become a stage musical until 1980 when the producer David Merrick commissioned a book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble and added more Warren & Dubin songs (originally written for other films). The show was a hit and the subsequent London West End production, in 1984, is famous for life imitating art as the teenaged Catherine Zeta-Jones actually had to stand in when both the actor playing Peggy Sawyer and her understudy were taken ill, and was then cast permanently in the role, launching her professional career. I saw that West End production when it toured to the Opera House in Manchester in the late 1980s and I can remember being bowled over from the start of the show when the current rises to reveal row upon row of people tap dancing to the title song. So I was looking forward to seeing whether the show was as good as I remembered when we went to see the latest West End revival, directed by the show’s author Mark Bramble, with choreography by Randy Skinner, at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, last Saturday. It was brilliant! Even that opening moment didn’t disappoint as the curtain rose a few tentative inches and paused to show forty pairs of tap dancing feet, before completing its ascent to reveal the whole massive stage of the Theatre Royal. ‘42nd Street’ is a delightfully old-fashioned musical: there is very little plot but the dialogue is snappy, the songs are wonderful and the dance numbers are truly amazing. This production has a cast of 55 people on stage (plus 19 musicians in the pit) and provides an endless supply of big dance numbers, including a typical Busby Berkeley circle of dancers lying on the stage with a huge overhead mirror to show the audience the kaleidoscopic patterns they create. The star name in the cast is Sheena Easton as awkward diva Dorothy Brock: I was particularly impressed by her singing in the challenging chromatic intervals of ‘About a Quarter To Nine’. But the show definitely belongs to the dancers: Clare Halse as Peggy Sawyer and Stuart Neal as Billy Lawlor were both incredible. With tap dancing there really is nowhere to hide – it’s audibly obvious if you put a foot wrong. And the increasingly ambitious tap routines create a thrilling, breath-holding fascination before delivering beautifully every time. By the final spectacular ensemble dances I had tears in my eyes from the sheer joy of this stunning live entertainment. ‘42nd Street’ is still a feelgood show for depressing times – go see it.

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