Review: 42nd Street, Bradford Alhambra, 18/09/2012


When? Tuesday 18th September 2012
Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, stalls
Dave Willetts, Marti Webb, Bruce Montague, Jessica Punch, James O’Connell, Carol Ball, Graham Hoadley, Graeme Henderson, Stephen Weller, Rebecca Marks, Lucy Ashenden, George Bray, Tabitha Camburn, Felicity Chilver, Daniel Clift, Abigail Climer, Katy Day, Anouska Eaton, Jamie Harris, Jenny Jones, Josh Kiernan, Stevie-Jean McGuire, Holly Mitchell, Marios Nicolaides, Ben Palmer, Debbie Paul, Claire Rickard, Hollie Sorelle, Sebastian Sykes, Billie-Kay

“Think of the two most glorious words in the English language; musical comedy!“, enthused ‘King of Broadway’ Julian Marsh before the Act II showstopper ‘Lullaby of Broadway'; in the case of UK Productions 2012 tour of 42nd Street, it is hard to disagree. 42nd Street is the ‘Broadway musical’ at its purest; huge production numbers see swathes of tap-dancing, top-hatted chorus boys vying for attention with a similarly handsome chorus line of young ladies, each offering notable talent in addition to the Broadway T&T combination, which was the backbone of musical theatre for the majority of the 20th century. Indeed the 1980 musical, set in 1930’s New York City during the Great Depression and re-worked from a 1933 novel, is an unashamed homage to the era – and a show which is still very much loved today.

The story is a classic scenario; Broadway diva Dorothy Brock (Marti Webb) breaks her ankle shortly before opening night of a new Broadway show, ‘Pretty Lady’, leaving the production without a star – and leaving the entire company, including legendary director Julian Marsh, out of desperately needed bread money in Depression-stricken New York City. Step forward bubbly Peggy Sawyer, (Jessica Punch) an unknown from Allentown, Pennsylvania who is making her professional debut in the chorus line. Can she step into the spotlight and become a star?

The musical is a blast from start to finish; a combination of warm humour, the light-hearted and fluffy narrative, and some wonderful song and dance numbers makes 42nd Street one of the best of its kind. Indeed, large chunks of the show are lifted and used for comic effect in other productions such as Spamalot, The Drowsy Chaperone and most notably The Producers, which watches as a love-letter to the likes of 42nd Street, which is evidence of the genre’s enduring appeal. The book is also surprisingly relevant and engaging for such a marshmallowy show; Act II’s ‘Sunny Side to Every Situation’ was particularly moving, the simple direction allowed the poignancy of the moment to shine through beautifully, as the redundant chorus girls fearfully contemplate their respective futures. The production numbers are an absolute joy to watch; the dancing is largely impeccable – particularly from the female ensemble – and the footwork outstanding as you would expect from a show which features a triple-threat dance-centric cast of over twenty dedicated hoofers, plus principal roles, tap dancing in unison. The show has camp in spades; early on, the fourth wall is very quickly and knowingly broken as Maggie suggests with a knowing smile that the chorus girls tap dance their way to the local restaurant, before putting musicians to sword: “We put them in a pit for a reason, you know”.

The sizable budget for the production has been very well spent on filling the stage with performers, both plentiful in number and quality. Gareth Williams’ cracking little orchestra of nine are a pleasure to listen to throughout and an unexpected luxury. To put things into perspective: the UK touring production of 42nd Street boasts a larger band than the West End production of Les Miserables. The costumes (Roger Kirk) are fitting and terrifically striking throughout, the wig work is similarly impressive for such a large undertaking. Douglas W Schmidt’s designs are surprisingly grand; the second act train station scene is given its own impressive set, as is the theatre dressing room; by the time the finale comes we are treated to the full company tap dancing in shimmering gold, on the iconic lit staircase. It is hard not to be impressed by the efforts of the producer and design team who spared no expense. Even the downstage backdrop projections and lighting work (David Howe) were impressive throughout and the projections used sparingly alongside actual, physical sets. Director/Co-author and 42nd Street regular Mark Bramble does a fantastic job of ensuring the action flows along nicely.

The cast is headed up by two British musical theatre veterans and household names in the industry in Marti Webb and Dave Willetts. Webb is decent enough as Dorothy Brock and she sings reasonably well. Her character is written to be outshone by her younger, more generously talented ensemble member colleague; and she duly is. Dave Willetts, previously outstanding in The Phantom of the Opera and more recently Craig Revel Horwood’s 2008 Sunset Boulevard, has something of a spark on stage which is hard to quantify. He can create a tension in the air that very few performers can muster and again achieves this as a gruff Julian Marsh. ‘Lullaby of Broadway’, the stand-out number of the performance, is his crowning triumph in the role, which he sings and acts with gravitas and dignity throughout. The quality throughout the ensemble is very high, Jessica Punch does very well as Peggy, with a wide-eyed excitability and charm which is impossible not to find endearing; James O’Connell shamelessly hams it up as Billy Lawlor to great comic effect; O’Connell, like Punch, is also an excellent dancer and had the technical skills to back up the comic elements of his role. Carol Ball starts very strongly as Maggie, helping carry ‘Go Into Your Dance’ with gusto. The dance ensemble all looked the part and had the ability to match, credit must be given to choreographer Graeme Henderson for his fabulous work and dance captain Hollie Sorelle for ensuring the dancing was as tight and focused as it was on the night. Slightly less focused, however, were the accents which were a curious mixture; for every Brooklyn there was an erroneous Texan or ropey General American. Not distracting, but not brilliant.

If you missed this tour in its original 2007 outing, you have a second chance; 42nd Street is a slice of classic Broadway on your doorstep and this production from Martin Dodd on behalf of UK Productions is thoroughly enjoyable for young and old alike.

42nd Street runs at the Bradford Alhambra until 22nd September 2012.

- Harry Zing



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