Tuesday 13th November 2012
'42nd Street' is a musical that seems to have been around forever despite only making its way to the stage in 1978. Upon making my own way to the Empire Theatre in Liverpool to see this latest touring production, I realised I actually knew very little about it. The only expectation I had was that it would be full of extravagant dance routines and the show certainly delivered on that score.
Set in 1933, '42nd Street' follows the backstage drama of putting on a musical ('Pretty Lady'), with leading lady Dorothy Brock hindered by her inability to dance but guaranteed star billing due to a particularly insistent financial backer. Disaster strikes however when Dorothy breaks her ankle and is unable to continue; will debutante Peggy Sawyer, promoted from the chorus, be able to win over the audience and keep the show open?
The fact we all resoundingly know the answer to this is simply part of the shows charm. Seasoned musical theatre performer Dave Willetts plays the director of ‘Pretty Lady’, Julian Marsh. Willetts still has excellent stage presence and it is a pleasure to hear him show off his rich singing voice in Act Two. As Dorothy Brock, Marti Webb also sings strongly and clearly and her Act One solo number, ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ is a particular highlight. By the very nature of the part however, Webb must step aside for the majority of Act Two when her character is replaced by chorus girl Peggy Sawyer, played perfectly here by Jessica Punch. Punch captures Peggy’s irrepressible enthusiasm, positivity and charm and creates a character you root for from the moment she steps on stage.
Though in many ways a very traditional, old-fashioned musical, there is plenty within it for a modern audience to enjoy. With music and lyrics by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, '42nd Street', contains some classic showtunes, including ‘We’re in the Money’, ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ and of course the title track (so good it is sung three times and each time seems as fresh and exciting as the last). This production is at its best during these big numbers, where the large ensemble fill the stage and launch into captivating tap dance routines so full of energy and joy that you can’t help but wish you could get up and join in the fun. Choreographer Graeme Henderson has created some inspiring routines and coupled with the bright costumes and set design the large production numbers are a great visual spectacle.
What does let the show down is the flimsy book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble. I would have liked to have seen more of the backstage rehearsals and I felt a lot more comedy could have been wrung from certain situations, such as Dorothy’s inability to dance. A subplot involving Mafia-style gangsters starts but goes nowhere. ‘Pretty Lady’, the show-within-the-show, provided a platform for a variety of different songs and styles but seemed to have no narrative arc whatsoever. Likewise, the romantic subplot in Act Two seems to come from nowhere and I was left wondering whether I was supposed to be rooting for the pairing when it actually came across as more strange than tender.
However, it is unlikely anyone will be going to see '42nd Street' for the plot and those expecting lots of toe-tapping and plenty of sparkle and pizzazz will not be disappointed. It is fantastic to see such a large cast in a touring show and everyone dances impeccably with astonishing amounts of energy.
'42nd Street' is at Liverpool Empire theatre until 17th November and you can see if it is coming to a theatre near you here. If it’s a night of glamour, fun and merriment you’re looking for, this is a show that will put a smile firmly on your face and give everyone a new found urge to tap dance!
N.B On a personal level I couldn’t help thinking that although Webb and Willetts are the star names of the production; given that the story revolves around an unknown stepping in for the star and stealing the show, I thought it would have been a nice touch for Jessica Punch to get to take the final bow. I may be the only person to think about such things but still, it would be a nice moment of life imitating art.