‘Naughty, bawdy, gaudy, sporty’: 42nd Street @ Theatre Royal Drury Lane

A very jovial Jae Alexander raises his conducting baton, and everything is buzzing for the show to begin. As the cheerful overture comes to an end, the curtain raises a fraction to reveal a classic sight of musical theatre – a long row of feet furiously tapping away. Then, the full stage is revealed, and we are thrust into an energetic, almost too bright scene that sets the tone for the rest of the show – there will be colourful costumes, much talk of showbiz and, above all, mind-boggling tap routines.

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The year is 1933, the place is Atlantic City in the throes of the Great Depression. We are in an audition room – Broadway producer Julian Marsh is casting the chorus for his next show. The audience takes the ensemble, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, immediately into their hearts. Their yearning to get jobs dancing in a musical comedy chorus is palpable – the show is set in a time when not getting the gig would mean relying on the breadline. What follows is a fairly simply storyline – when the star drops out due to a broken ankle, underdog chorine Peggy must take her place and inevitably outshines her. Also, her director and co-star both have the hots for her. That’s pretty much all there is to it.

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It would have been nice to see the scenes in between dance numbers explored more deeply, because acting is most of the cast’s weakest skill. Sheena Easton, though she undoubtedly has a very good voice, is lacklustre character-wise as diva Dorothy Brock. Clare Halse, though sparkly when grinningly tapping and twirling her way around the stage, isn’t quite charming enough as dreamy-eyed chorus girl Peggy Sawyer. One would have expected Tom Lister’s experience to give his Julian Marsh more flair – he was very static in the first half and only warmed a bit into his role during the second. The star for me was Emma Caffrey as ‘Anytime Annie’ (the name explains her character). Highly watchable, she had boundless energy and the best singing skills among those in supporting roles.

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All of that being said, the dance numbers are glorious. This is obviously where the production has focused its energy. All the winning smiles and sequins you could possibly want are there, and the tap dancing is really very good. The classic tunes, such as ‘Shuffle off to Buffalo’ and ’42nd Street’, are entertainingly staged. One might have hoped for a bit more experimenting – this production did not surprise. The only scene that was unusually done was a number in which a chorus member seemed to dance with Easton’s shadow – she was singing behind a white screen. Other than that, it was a lot of the same type of dancing, the jokes are highly predicable and quite a bit of it is reminiscent of ‘Singing in the Rain’. However, perhaps that is the purpose of these classic Broadway shows, in some ways – to deliver just what the audience expects.

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There is no denying that it was an excellent night out. The show received a standing ovation from a lot of the audience after ’42nd Street’, and again from everyone at the end. True, there is no emotional depth to this show. But that is hardly what those who conceived this show to cheer up America during the time of the Great Depression were worrying about. It’s almost inevitably enjoyable. You will go home singing, ‘We’re in the money, we’re in the money..’ 42nd Street is nothing if not infectious. For all my criticisms of it, I’d probably go see it again tonight if I could.

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’42nd Street’ is booking at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane until 6 September 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.

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