“Who writes the words and music for all the girly shows?”, the white-toothed, white-suited Billy Lawlor asks at the opening of one of 42nd Street’s razzamatazz ensemble numbers. He smiles, tilts his head and answers, firmly and tunefully: “nobody cares and nobody knows”. And perhaps there is a little more irony in those lines than book writers Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble would like to admit.
1933. Depression era New York. There are two options for a girl on Broadway these days: join the chorus and read lines or join the queue in the breadlines. Theatrical impresario Julian Marsh is casting for his latest and greatest show and out-of-towner Peggy Sawyer is looking for a big break in the big city. The financial times are hard, kid, so Marsh has called on kiddie-car tycoon Abner Dillon to spare him a dime. He agrees, but only on the condition that Marsh cast his aging prima-donna wife in the starring role.
And that is about as far as the drama dares to carry Mark Bramble’s production of this dated 1980 musical. Despite its quick-footed and exciting tap opening, the show’s exposition is clunky and jarring, its characterisation heavy hoofed and its book as subtle as a pair of orthopaedic heels. In a post-Producers world, it is difficult to see shows like 42nd Street, in its current form at least, as anything but passé. Whilst Roger Kirk’s costuming sparkles beautifully,Douglas W Schmidt’s set design is looking about as fresh as the New Deal and does little to bring the production out of the eighties.
The true asset of the production is its wonderful cast. West End legend Marti Webb still has the fire in her heart and the heat in her eyes to set a torch song ablaze but, without the foundation of a well-developed character in the show’s book, her performance cannot reach the dramatic heights of which she is capable. Dave Willetts, too, performs wholeheartedly as last chance director Julian Marsh, delivering an exceptional rendition of “Lullaby of Broadway” which is both intoxicating and chilling.
As a piece of dance theatre, this production of 42nd Street does not put a foot wrong. Its endlessly energetic and hardworking ensemble members are the beating heart of this piece. Graeme Henderson’s incredible choreography has more steps to it than a climb up Kilimanjaro and the cast meet the challenge with such verve and tenacity. The power in their synchronised feet is at times thunderous and fills the auditorium with a drama and dynamism which is sorely lacking in the book and music. One can only hope that there is a resident podiatrist lurking in the wings to soothe and improve their steel heels.
As a piece of dance, this is an exceptionally clean and inspiring piece of theatre, light on its feet and lithe in its movements. As a piece of drama, however, this Broadway baby has tired feet, pounding 42nd Street to be in a show and struggling to get beyond the stage door.