It’s nearly 30 years since the hallowed stage of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane first echoed to the sound of the huge full-company tap numbers in 42nd Street but, all these years later, as the Congress Theatre curtain slowly rises to reveal well over 20 pairs of enthusiastically tapping feet – the collective goosebumps and tingling spines of the eager Eastbourne audience prove that this show has lost none of it’s magic.
The script in this, almost improbable, tale of a chorus girl’s meteoric rise to be the star of the show has never been the main feature. No time is wasted trying to flesh out the paper-thin storyline because every moment spent doing that would take time away from the original intention of the creative team – to showcase huge dance numbers and some of the best songs ever written for the stage like “We’re in the Money”, “Dames”, “Lullaby of Broadway”, “Shuffle off to Buffalo” and the massive title number.
The supremely energetic and hard working cast are led by Dave Willetts and Marti Webb. Willetts performs very well as the bossy and demanding producer Julian Marsh, with Webb acting every inch the diva in her role as Dorothy Brock. Both prove that, despite the passing of time, they still have the talent, the stage presence, and the powerful lungs, that made them the richly deserved musical stars that they are.
Carol Ball and Graham Hoadly take the roles of Maggie Jones and Bert Barry, the writers of the show-within-a-show, Pretty Lady and they add the perfect comedy touches throughout the piece – with Ball just nudging ahead as the chief laughter maker. Bruce Montague makes his larger-than-life presence felt as Abner Dillon, Brock’s “Sugar Daddy”, with Stephen Weller as her, appallingly indiscrete, Bit-on-the-Side, Pat Denning.
Throughout the show the choreography of Graeme Henderson is held tight and, in the role of Pretty Lady’s choreographer Andy Lee, Henderson shows exactly how to “practice what you preach”. His dance moves are superb and having such a close up view of his company every night obviously helps him enormously to keep the huge production numbers sharp, punchy and super slick.
There is one problem with such a strong, energetic and enthusiastic company, and that is that any “slightly off” performance easily becomes magnified and that is, sadly, true of James O'Connell’s appearance as Billy Lawlor. Lacking the huge charisma that he needs to make his character likeable, he just comes off as a bit egotistical and slightly smarmy.
Tapping her way to stardom as chorus girl turned leading lady, Peggy Sawyer, is Jessica Punch. The combination of theatrical naivety, starstruck bewilderment and absolutely stunning dance moves and vocals make her character instantly likeable and, as the show develops, they demonstrate what a tremendous leading lady Punch really is. Maybe not quite toppling Webb’s crown, but certainly giving it a good nudge!
Although some of the US production sets have seen better days, that is soon forgotten as they are filled with a huge cast, wearing dazzling costumes and singing fantastic songs. Of course, 42nd Street is, and always will be, all about tap dancing and, with the clever use of stage and foot microphones to enhance the sound; this production delivers the most incredible tap dancing by the truckload!