Sunday, 2 December 2007

42nd Street - on tour

42nd Street
On Tour
Directed by Mark Bramble
Choreographey by Graeme Henderson
Review by Adam Sheldon

This show demonstrates that if you can deliver to a high enough standard, there is no harm in the old adage: “Give the public what it wants”. From a musical, audience have traditionally hoped for a mix of romance, comedy, sentimental numbers and show-stoppers. What they get here is something simpler.

Adapted from the 1933 film of the same name, “42nd Street” nominally tells the story of Peggy Sawyer, an understudy who hits it big when the leading lady breaks her leg – but story and characterisation are very secondary concerns. What in fact it offers, in the main successfully, is an almost non-stop series of familiar Hollywood hits, presented with gusto and conviction by a large and very well-drilled cast. “I Only Have Eyes for You”, “Dames”, “We’re in the Money” and, naturally, the title number: they’re all there, and mostly shining out in commendably lush orchestrations (the nine-strong pit band works very hard).

The general standard of singing is no better than acceptable, marred by some wayward amplification on the opening night; but the be-all and end-all of this show will always be the dancing, and here, choreographer Graeme Henderson, who also fills the role in the fictional show, has excelled in keeping his team focused. The basic moves are standard – or look so now, when Busby Berkeley’s work is well absorbed into our collective memory – yet they are executed with precision, commitment and only a little of the glazed grimacing so typical of massed-ranks chorus lines. Lullaby of Broadway, in a neatly-set railway station concourse, is a real highlight at the top of Act Two. Strangely, among the weaker and less sharp of the dancers is Jessica Punch, playing Peggy; rather like the original diva in the show-within-the-show, though, she is surrounded by sufficiently good chorines for the overall effect to seem very smooth. In the big tap numbers, particularly the finale, with a satisfying walk-down on a glittering staircase, it seems that – literally – nobody puts a foot wrong. The synchronisation of the beat is virtually flawless, which is a real achievement.

So what is less good about an evening which clearly won over a determinedly uncritical audience right from the first, slightly underwhelming ensemble number (an utterly bland toes and teeth effort called Audition, which could hardly have been further from even the cynical emotionalism of “A Chorus Line”)? The first half is overcrowded, and needs to lose two numbers. The book is scarcely more sophisticated than a pantomime, and makes comparably low demands on the dramatic abilities of the cast: there is no emotional truth whatever in the various very fleeting attachments between characters (“a dame/ is just a temporary flame”, as one of the songs has it), the juveniles are all interchangeable, and Bruce Montague will be hoping none of his legit theatre colleagues catches him gargling vowels in the most creative Mid-West accent to be heard on the British stage. The few extended stretches of dialogue are marked through efficiently, with a metronomic regularity, and no great feeling: we are left in no doubt they are merely filler before the next outburst from the band. When, for example, the choreographer announces that Peggy is the best hoofer in the show (not true), there is no whisper of a reaction from the girls she has displaced.

Elsewhere, the sets are variable. Some of the backdrops, although charmingly of the period, look cheaply painted, and the stage occasionally looks yawningly bare: as when the cast of “Pretty Lady” repair to a fashionable nightclub - with no tables. When the show returns to New York after shifting to Philadelphia (a structural flaw in the original) the designer has already shot his bolt, and Broadway is indicated by three ill-assorted electric bulb signs, including, oddly, “Katherine Hepburn”. The lighting does its job unshowily: the one attempt at flamboyance, a shoehorned-in version of The Shadow Waltz featuring dancing silhouettes against a bare, off-white curtain, is a mistake.

Minor cavils aside, by the end of the 150 minute running time, it is hard to argue with the enthusiastic verdict of a virtually full house. While the show is now a creamy and homogenised entertainment, without any of the underlying sourness of the original (losing thirty dollars a week was no laughing matter then), it does what it says on the packaging. It is designed to provide value for the increasingly high seat prices charged on number one tours, and the energy and exuberance of the cast at this stage of the tour (the opening night) are undeniably impressive. How things will look after several months of three matinees a week is, of course, another matter.
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