Set in 1933 during the Great Depression, a new show is announced. The dancers are desperate for work, the director and writers are desperate for it to work and past her prime, star Dorothy Brock is desperate for the limelight; into the theatrical whirl comes Peggy Sawyer, straight off the train from Allen Town and ready to try her luck on Broadway. Mixing rehearsals for the new show Pretty Ladies within the actual show itself makes 42nd Street a musical within a musical, and has a lot to delight an audience with.
Jessica Punch is very good as Peggy; charming and adorable with a quiet strength that saved her from being drowned under the weight of the big personalities surrounding her. With a voice that matches her foot tapping prowess, she is a stand out star. Dave Willetts as Julian Marsh is excellent, with a powerful presence, both on stage and within the context of the play itself, dominating without falling into the trap of being aggressive. The singing we did hear from him had the audience blown away. My only quibble would be the too subtle approach to his falling in love with Peggy, which made their kiss near the end a shock. Though to be surprised by romantic entanglements in musical theatre is in itself a new experience!
Dorothy Brock (Marti Webb) managed to exude the right amount of diva bitchiness and tender lovingness in equal measure that makes her character so interesting, and surprisingly complex for the genre. However saying this, some of her scenes seemed very flat and one dimensional even within the context of the show, which belied the partial realism the show needs. Bruce Montague as Abner Dillon was both sweet and comical, and a good contrast to all the other show-people characters. Despite his introduction as both the saviour and threat to the opening of Pretty Ladies, he managed to charm both the other characters and the audience.
Bert Barry (Graham Hoadly) and Maggie Jones (Carol Ball) were, as they introduced themselves, the comedy pair. Their roles as writers of the new play and mentors and leaders within the cast made for brilliantly interesting viewing, and their simultaneous humour and cynicism fleshed them out well, despite their lack of stage time.
The chorus were all wonderful dancers and singers, and make the play worth seeing just for the spectacle of their numbers – choreographed by Graeme Henderson, playing the choreographer within the show as well. What is more, every member is given their own characteristics that individualise them (though some conflicts and relationships appear once and are never brought up again, which is annoying for continuities sake.) They also occasionally ranged into stylised stereotypes, which was not bad per say, but contrasted strangely with the more realistic characters.
The costume, designed by Roger Kirk, was excellent; ranging from glamorous to hilarious and egregiously portraying the contrast in yesteryear shows, where nothing was too far for the stage. There were also some nice nods towards the original film adaptation, for example costumes in the number We’ve Got the Money.
Overall, 42nd Street is a brilliant display of the spectacle a musical can and should be, and is worth it for the musical numbers alone, but add to this some hysterical and memorable characters and you have yourself a winner.
See 42nd Street at Theatre Royal until Saturday 1st December.