Mark Shenton in north London
15 June 2023
“Think of musical comedy, the most glorious words in the English language!” So says theatre director Julian Marsh to Peggy Sawyer, the chorus girl he’s begging to save his new musical after his original star is injured and can’t go on, in the show-within-the-show called “Pretty Lady” that 42nd Street charts the backstage progress of, from auditions to an aborted out-of-town try-out in Philadelphia and then a rushed opening on Broadway.
Adam Garcia. Photo credit: Johan Persson.
Watching London’s newest revival of the show – last seen at Drury Lane in 2017, the same theatre it had originally transferred to from Broadway in 1984, but now in a gorgeously newly designed and stunningly re-choreographed production – it’s hard to disagree that musical comedy is indeed the most glorious form of live theatre there is.
There’s ample evidence of this truth in London right now. Guys and Dolls, currently also being revived at London’s Bridge Theatre, is set on the seamier side-streets of Times Square – a world of professional gamblers and nightclub “hostesses”, plus the missionaries trying to save them. But 42nd Street (with music by Harry Warren and lyrics by Al Dubin) evokes the business of show business, showing just how a show is put together. It’s like a less earnest version of A Chorus Line, or a less gritty version of Follies.
The original Broadway production in 1980, directed and choreographed by Gower Champion, created its own show-business mythology when producer David Merrick took to the stage on the triumphant opening night and silenced the audience’s cheers to announce that Champion had died that day. Merrick was king of the publicity stunt, and he spun even this grave news to his show’s advantage, ensuring extra headlines.
Josefina Gabrielle and Les Dennis. Photo credit: Johan Persson.
Champion’s original staging was meticulously re-created in the show’s subsequent Broadway return in 2001, and the West End in 2017, both supervised by Mark Bramble, who had co-written the original book with Michael Stewart.
But this new production, directed by Jonathan Church and choreographed by Bill Deamer, makes decisive departures from Champion’s original template. For instance, it doesn’t open with a slow rise of the stage curtain to reveal a long line of tap-dancing feet, but creates a mise-en-scène of backstage life. And “There’s a sunny side to every situation”, set in the dancers’ dressing rooms, has them spotlit across different positions frontstage, instead of seeing them picked out in individual cubicles behind their framed mirrors.
But the show’s overall – and sometimes overkill – joy remains firmly in place, as an ensemble of 18 tightly drilled dancers join the eight principals in regular blasts of explosive tap-dancing.
There’s also the unique novelty of having Julian Marsh – the show’s own stand-in for Champion himself – played (for the first time to my knowledge) by an actor-dancer Adam Garcia who can really, really dance, like a more mature version of the eager tenor Billy Lawlor (Sam Lips) who gives Peggy Sawyer (irresistible Nicole-Lily Baisden, so good as the ingénue two summers ago in the Barbican’s Anything Goes) her first break into the company.
Michael Praed as Pat Denning.. Photo credit: Johan Persson.
Meanwhile, it is star Dorothy Brock’s ankle break that gives Peggy her own opportunity for stardom – “you’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star!”, Marsh commands her, after also giving this cautionary qualification: “Dorothy makes it look easy, but it has taken years to perfect.” That’s precisely true, too, of West End veteran Ruthie Henshall who now plays Dorothy with grit as well as glamour and effortless style.
There’s also luxury casting in Josefina Gabrielle – another long-time leading lady – as Maggie Jones, co-writer of the show being rehearsed with Les Dennis’s Bert Barry, who bring their respective dancing and comedy chops to the fore.
As designed and costumed by Rob Jones, the show has a gorgeous period flair and, combined with Bill Deamer’s effortlessly flowing and exhilarating movement, makes for old-fashioned theatrical heaven.
While ENO’s London Coliseum is currently hosting a return London season for the pounding rock opera We Will Rock You, with music by Queen, which kind of makes sense for a venue associated with grander classical opera, 42nd Street is the perfect summer fit for a house that specializes in contemporary and classical dance fare.