As feel-good musicals go, 42nd Street is near the top of the charts. Its simple story of showbiz folk and of ingenue Peggy Sawyer, the chorus girl who steps onto stage a youngster and comes back a star, has a heart-lifting appeal that’s hard to resist. Plus there is the tap dancing. A lot of it.
In this revival, directed by Jonathan Church, its warm-heartedness is turned up to the max – and in Nicole-Lily Baisden, they have a Peggy who really does have an electrifying impact. She spends most of the first act being sweet and gentle; then when she actually bursts into her chance at stardom, she utterly dazzles.
In fact, the entire production is notable for the strength of the cast. This is a show that is as much pastiche as the real thing. It was devised in 1980, based on the 1933 movie of the same name, with a book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble that drew on the Depression-era songs of Al Dubin and Harry Warren to make a backstage musical.
Then, as now, the idea that the razzle-dazzle of a tap show could raise the spirits and hopes in times of real economic hardship felt truthful. It gives the show an impactful edge: behind the glitter is the real danger of hunger and suffering. But the plot is woefully thin. It relies a lot on that tap dancing.
Church’s delicate production keeps the balance between all the elements. He’s much helped by a set by Robert Jones that skilfully moves between backstage bareness and on-stage glamour and that weaves black and white projections (by Jon Driscoll) into the design, the black back wall sliding up and down to reveal letter box scenes of New York and Philadelphia.
Bill Deamer’s choreography sizzles whether it’s showing the cast in relaxed rehearsal, or in full teeth-and-smiles on-stage mode. He hasn’t got the massed ranks afforded by some larger productions that can make their effects simply by scale, but he more than makes up for it with the imagination of the dance, with lots of little shuffles and flicks making the footwork intricate, and arms embellishing the steps, creating fabulous, propulsive shapes.
In Adam Garcia’s Julian Marsh, the production also has an actor playing a man who is supposed to be a genius at producing musicals – “Musical comedy! The two most wonderful words in the English language,” he exclaims – who actually can dance, though sadly he only gets to show the range of his talent right at the end. But his ease around movement deepens Garcia’s portrayal and he makes Marsh more vulnerable and much funnier than usual, as he drives forward to get his show on stage, amidst all manner of complications and setbacks.
He relishes the famous lines but also slightly sends up Marsh’s fabled pep talks, including his classic remark as he launches into relentless rehearsal: “I’ll either have a live leading lady – or a dead chorus girl”. His relationship with Peggy is nicely chaste. Baisden combines the character’s innocence with strength and ambition, indicating that this is a woman who is nobody’s push-over and that her admiration for him is purely professional.
Her love story with Sam Lips’ Billy Lawlor is oddly cursory, but Lips sings and dances so beautifully that it barely matters. Josefina Gabrielle makes Maggie a witty, rounded survivor, as quick of brain as she is of feet, and Les Dennis turns in a comic turn as her co-writer Bert. As Dorothy Brock, the star whose misfortune gives Peggy her big chance, Ruthie Henshall lends her considerable talent to making her a fully rounded woman, not just a sinecure. She sings utterly wonderfully, her voice husky and warm, and she makes you root for Brock just as strongly as you hope for Peggy.
It’s not really a show about character. But the care given to the story grounds the song and dance. Numbers such as the percussive “We’re In the Money” or the soft-shoe blend shown in “42nd Street” send you off into the night, full of the joy of tapping in unison with such skill and style.