Released in 1933 smack bang in the middle of the Great Depression, the 42nd Street film isn’t as great as its reputation might suggest. It’s a determinedly, almost desperately upbeat musical riddled with the-show-must-go-on cliches including that old chestnut: Leading lady breaks her ankle, the understudy fills in and becomes an overnight sensation. It only has a few songs and Ruby Keeler, who plays spunky heroine Peggy Sawyer, is a hopelessly clunky dancer – although she’s impossible to dislike and Busby Berkeley’s staging of the big numbers is so bonkers the film is a guilty pleasure.
The stage version, on the other hand, is pure pleasure – especially when it’s done as lavishly as the London revival that’s now on at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. With a cast of 50 and glitzy costumes, awesome sets, illuminated staircases, top hats, giant coins, dazzling dancing and more tap shoes than in all of Fred Astaire’s movies combined, it’s got the wow factor and then some.
Premiering on Broadway in 1980 with added musical numbers and playing its first stint at Drury Lane four years later, the show gives us the old razzle-dazzle the film only manages in fits and starts (That first UK production also quite wonderfully mirrored its own plot when teenage chorus girl Catherine Zeta-Jones went on in place of the lead and came back a star).
Sheena Easton as ageing actress Dorothy Brock is the only big name in the cast and she’s surprisingly funny in her diva strops, although her incredible singing voice isn’t a surprise to a long-time fan like me. Emmerdale star Tom Lister is, however, a real surprise as the pushy director Julian Marsh who pushes Peggy onto the stage and Clare Halse as said Peggy is so fantastic a hoofer and so winning a performer you can’t stop smiling whenever she’s around.
A big shout-out too to Stuart Neal as game showman Billy, whose footwork is incredible. That goes for all the dancers, who hotfoot the hell out of numbers like Lullaby Of Broadway and We’re In The Money. The set pieces seem to get bigger and bigger and you’d swear the dancers are being cloned backstage.
Director Mark Bramble has fun ribbing the plot’s OTT theatrics (“You’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star,” March orders his protégé) whilst, with the help of choreographer Randy Skinner and a peerless tech team, keeping the spectacle at full wattage.
Starting with the curtain rising just enough to show a slew of dancing feet and ending with a massive tap dancing encore, 42nd Street is (as the title song promises) gaudy and naughty and also camp and comical and so full of energy and spectacle it takes your breath away.
42nd Street is at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London. For tickets click here.
Words by Simon Button