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42nd Street

by on 30 March 2023

Broadway on Tap

42nd Street

by Harry Warren, lyrics by Al Dubin and Johnny Mercer

HEOS Musical Theatre at the Judi Dench Playhouse, Ealing until 1st April

Review by Vince Francis

The musical 42nd Street comes from a long line of adaptations from literature in all its varied forms, think West Side Story (inter alia) and Shakespeare, Guys & Dolls and Damon Runyon, even Madama Butterfly and Pierre Loti.  This example was originally written in 1932 as a “scandalous potboiler” of a novel, by Bradford Ropes, a perhaps relatively unknown novelist and screenwriter, but one with a fairly impressive string of novels and films to his name.  The Amazon blurb tells us the novel reveals;

“ … the needy, seedy, slangy side of that grimy gulch called Broadway, once upon a time, a twisted comic valentine to musical comedy and to every one of the human vices. It’s Valley of Dolls decades before Valley of the Dolls.”

In Ropes’ original novel, Billy Lawlor is the half-closeted boy toy of British director Julian Marsh. Leading lady, Dorothy Brock is still sneaking around behind her millionaire boyfriend’s back with Pat Denning, but this time, Pat is also romancing Peggy Sawyer, while also having an affair with the wife of Marsh’s dance director Andy Lee, who has a succession of chorine mistresses of his own.  Everybody’s drinking, drugging, and screwing so much it’s amazing they can get Pretty Lady ready for opening night!

The novel was adapted for film in 1933 and became part of the genre of Depression Musicals which included the likes of Roman Scandals, Gold Diggers of 1933 (and 1935, and 1937), and Dames.  Curiously, a stage adaptation was not attempted until 1980, when the show premiered on Broadway, with a book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, music by Harry Warren and lyrics by Al Dubin and Johnny Mercer.  An award-winning run led to a London premier in 1984, which also garnered awards.

As a piece, it slots into the category of “Jukebox Musical” (prior to the invention of jukeboxes, I think they were called “List Shows”), in that many of the original songs were not written specifically to support this plot and, indeed, some can be heard in other of the films listed above.  In fact, HEOS’s last production at Questors, Our House, is a more contemporaneous example of this form. 

The stage musical takes some of the extremes out of the original novel’s plot, but retains some of the main themes, with acerbic producer Julian Marsh anxiously in need of a Broadway hit, fading leading lady Dorothy Brock fighting feelings for her old dance partner Pat Denning whilst indulging in a sugar daddy affair with tycoon Abner Dillon, who is financing the show, and ingenue Peggy Sawyer arriving from parochial Allentown to win the hearts of, well, everyone, really, but mostly the show’s male heart throb lead, Billy Lawlor, and become an overnight star, following the incapacitation of Ms Brock.  Add to the mix a handful of well-drawn caricatures of writers, dancers, and a dance captain, a generous helping of atmospheric show tunes and routines and, hey, whaddya know?  We got a show!

And so to this production.  A bit of a mixed bag for this reviewer if I’m to be totally honest.  It is probably fair to say that for all musical societies, the things that make a production most appealing, i.e., large cast, lots of chorus involvement, etc., can make the production most challenging.  Equally, those challenges are familiar among many societies; the matter of finding men who can sing, dance and act, together with a production that appeals to them having, in all probability, a prominent position on that list.  There is also the challenge of understanding the production itself and the historical context, both socially and in terms of production and performance styles.  Granted 42nd Street is not and is not intended to be an in-depth historical analysis, but it does reference the Great Depression and the precariousness of economic survival in the theatre; and all good comedy is rooted in truth.

In the main, Michelle Spencer’s production rose to those challenges well.  The humour in the script was delivered with confidence and got the laughs.   HEOS is fortunate enough to be able to field enough tappers to make a convincing company, and the routines had the requisite flair and pizzazz, although executing a tap routine on the large dollar pieces traditionally used in We’re In The Money, proved a little tricky for one or two.  To be fair, I would have struggled there, too.  On the downside, one could be forgiven for a suspicion that some of the chaps were, shall we say, a gentle remove from their premier-league dancing days.  

For the principals, Chris Yoxall was as confident and authoritative as ever, attributes entirely appropriate to his interpretation of Julian Marsh.  Chris demonstrates an understanding of the character, which he is able to offer back to the audience with ease and credibility.  Similarly, Alexandra Turner’s Dorothy Brock delivered the arrogance and disdain of the overly-pampered star, which cracks with the realisation of her true love for Pat Denning, ably played by Jonathan Carter.  Emma La-Plain’s Peggy Sawyer has bundles of sweetness and innocence and bundles of talent to go with it.

I have to say, unfortunately I was less convinced by Lee Ashley’s Billy Lawlor and I’m not sure he was fully invested in the role either.  It’s probably fair to say that none of the characters is intended to be much more than a caricature, but the performers do need to establish an initial authenticity.  For me, Lee didn’t quite capture the “sparkiness” of Lawlor and seemed to lack a little confidence in the singing and tap, both of which form the basis of the character.  Possibly a case of first night nerves, of course, for which much genuine sympathy and an equally genuine hope that the remainder of the week will see a stronger characterisation.  Tyrone Haywood’s Andy Lee showed great authenticity in the character, but I’m afraid that, despite some very slick moves, I wasn’t convinced he was a long-time tapper.

There is a tricksy phrase, which feels like a modulation, towards the end of the duet About a Quarter to Nine, which didn’t quite work for Emma and Alexandra on this performance.  I think its purpose is to help signify the passing of the flame from the older to the younger and it’s quite neat if it is executed well.  Both are highly capable singers, though, and I’m sure they will knock that into shape in short order.

Among the ensemble, the spoken roles and cameos were handled with the aplomb generally associated with HEOS, but one non-speaking stand-out for me was, I think, Zoe Scantlebury.  A confident and accomplished tapper clearly enjoying the opportunity to give those talents an outing and a great sketch as the French mime costumed pickpocket in the final 42nd Street number.

Music was under the deft and assured direction of Rob Wicks – I took a moment to watch him in the monitor – and an accomplished band provided the atmosphere and drive for the numbers.  A decent male close-harmony quartet in the second act was an added bonus.  The difference in numbers meant the ladies voices were dominant in the chorus numbers. 

Anne Costello’s costume design provided colour and style and Rob Lugger’s lighting picked that out nicely – apart from one cue where the stage went completely black with performers, albeit intended to be in the background, still on.

This one felt like a game of two halves.  The second act felt tighter and more accomplished than the first, but I’m confident that HEOS will even that out, though; and I wish them, as ever, a successful run.

Vince Francis, March 2023

Photography by Carey Reese

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