Book: Michael Stewart, Mark Bramble
Director: Mark Bramble
Lyrics: Al Dubin
Music: Harry Warren
Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty
If you close your eyes and think of what a 1930s Broadway musical looks, feels and sounds like, then congratulations – you’re looking at 42nd Street. Created in 1980 as a call-back to the era, the show combines mind-bending tap dance routines, rolling waves of light-bulbs and sequins, and music with a jazzy swagger to deliver nothing short of pure, white-hot entertainment.
The story is almost incidental here, a way of getting from one routine to the next. Peggy Sawyer is a chorus-girl hopeful, just off the train from Allentown, Pennsylvania. She’s late to her first audition as she’s too nervous to go through the doors. Slightly improbably, she then wows with her song and dance skills, gets hired, and ultimately becomes the star in one of the most anticipated new shows on Broadway, Pretty Lady.
It’s based on a depression era novel – so, easy to see where this story of “anyone can make it” comes from. The story and desperation which inspired it is a sombre note, and the cast, orchestra and steel-toed shoes do their utmost to drown it out with a barrage of incredible numbers and glitz. Whoppers like Dames and We’re in the Money, are vibrant, tight and brash while even lighter scenes like the comedic romp of Shuffle off to Buffalo pack an audio/visual punch. The finale of the show-within-a-show, the titular 42nd Street, is an actual work of art – this is the money-shot of full ensemble tap dancing on massive brightly-lit stairs with arms and legs whirling wildly in synchronous perfection.
It’s full on, there’s no doubt. Happily too, though the story isn’t up to much, the performances generate some depth of feeling to the show so it isn’t just all trumpets and flash. Sheena Easton as the star of Pretty Lady, is a huffing, pouting glamour-puss who is quick to alienate everyone involved. Her redemption as a character is perhaps the one genuinely human moment in the piece. All credit to her, Easton has an incredible voice, and though her character is dislikable, the performance is full of charisma. Matching her is the brash, demanding director of the show Julian Marsh. As Marsh, Tom Lister is a hard boss, working the dancers and performers to the bone. He’s a bit too spiky a character to believe the loyalty he apparently inspires in the cast, but Lister gives it socks and closes out the show perfectly.
Really, though, you have to look at Clare Halse as the true star here. Vibrant, sharp moves and great musical voice, it’s simply her show and she revels in it. Backed by an outrageously strong ensemble and chorus, an orchestra under Jae Alexander, the most dazzling sets and costumes imaginable and general excellence and cohesion all round – it’s a hell of a show.
There’s a lot going for it, indeed. However, exemplified by the weird (and really, probably easily edited to be brought up to date) relationship between the young dancer Peggy and her boss and director Julian, and some other pieces of strange 1930s misogyny in the lyrics and plotline it gets just a little uncomfortable. It would be nice to say just ignore them, but they’re a key part of this show. Perfect performances, an overflowing of effervescent glamour and bags of charisma. It’s a show to remember and a memory to cherish, just be sure to recognise it’s not something to set your moral clock by.
Runs until 22 July 2017 | Image: Brinkhoff & Moegenburg