Book: Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble
Music: Harry Warren
Lyrics: Al Dubin
Director: Ethan J Smith
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
42nd Street is an unashamedly feelgood musical. Based on the book from 1932 and subsequent film of 1933, it harks back to a glamorous era on the Great White Way. With its focus on song and dance, with plenty of tap to keep your feet, well, tapping, it’s a bright and cheery experience and one that won several awards when performed on Broadway and in the West End.
The plot is as predictable as it is thin. It’s 1933 and America is desperate for escapist entertainment. Enter Bert Barry and Maggie Jones, producers and writers of Pretty Lady. They hire the best director in Julian Marsh so what can go wrong? Well, to get funding from Abner Dillon, they’ve had to cast his new love, fading star and prima donna, Dorothy Brock. She’s a big name but hasn’t had a hit for ten years and, crucially, can’t dance. No wonder Julian is tetchy. Casting is almost over when naïve and hugely talented ingenue Peggy Sawyer arrives from out of town desperate to audition. Of course, she is ultimately cast and helped out by the more experienced ensemble – who quickly realise just how good she is. So when the show looks likely to close after a bizarre accident leaves Brock with a broken ankle, well, there’s only one way in which it can end. Along the way, there are love triangles and even assistance from a local gang leader (he happens to owe Julian a favour), but all the threads are neatly tied as the curtain falls on a successful Pretty Lady.
This version is brought to stage by Rugby-based Five Star Theatre, a company specialising in musicals and children’s theatre. In the pivotal rôle of Brock is X Factor winner Sam Bailey. She has a fine singing voice, hitting top notes with ease. She also handles the humour in Brock’s character well when she finds herself surrounded by younger, more talented dancers as she stands striking poses. She also shows a vulnerable side as a star aware that she is on a downhill slope and who, although desperate to stay on the spotlight, is able to see the potential in Peggy.
Alice Robertson brings us Peggy and shows off excellent tap-dancing skills and a sweet voice that hints at fragility. Chris Gilbey-Smith is a suitably bombastic Julian Marsh, while Ash Clifford is believable as Peggy’s main love interest, juvenile lead Billy Lawlor. Rivals for Brock’s heart, Abner Dillon (Stephen Fordham) and her former vaudeville partner Pat Denning (Gwyn D Wright) are maybe a touch underplayed at times.
The whole has the makings of a fine night out, but one has the feeling that this particular ship has been allowed to flounder a little for want of a ha-porth o’ tar. On opening night there were several issues with sound: the quality and volume through the microphones varied meaning that sometimes lines could be difficult to catch, whether spoken or sung, and the sound balance between performers and music was too often out of kilter. Overlong transitions and at times pedestrian direction from Ethan J Smith mean that a show that should zing along sometimes lacks pace, while the choreography from Tanveer Devgun is at times ungainly.
So this production of 42nd Street is something of a curate’s egg. Some good performances serve to give it a lift but overall it’s not quite there.
Runs Until 17 May 2019 | Image: Contributed