“Musical comedy — the most glorious words in the English language!”
It may be in the English language but this production of 42nd Street is in a French theatre, the glorious Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris which, under Jean-Luc Choplin’s artistic directorship, has arguably entirely reshaped the Parisian relationship with musical theatre. He’s brought Sondheim there for the first time in a big way (Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods) and has staged a number of classic Broadway musicals like An American in Paris (soon to open in London after its New York transfer) and last year’s Singin’ in the Rain.
42nd Street actually marks Choplin’s final show here, as the theatre will soon shutter for a couple of years to undergo major renovations, and Stephen Mear’s production certainly has the visual flair of a fitting finale. With a company of over 40, the tap-dancing routines are a absolute vision, a joyously heart-swelling parade of well-drilled precision, the likes of which we see so rarely these days even in the biggest shows. Combined with dazzling visual effects and gorgeous costumes courtesy of Peter McKintosh, the lavish aesthetic is an absolute treat.
But there’s no hiding from the fact that Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble’s book, from Bradford Ropes’ novel, is paper thin, lacking real humour or grit in its script or any real sophistication in its plotting. Set during the Depression, director Julian Marsh is launching his new show Pretty Lady and when his leading lady breaks her ankle just before opening night, will inexperienced chorus girl Peggy be able to step in and save the day? It’s all rather hackneyed and lacking in any kind of suspense, more of a problem than one might expect with a classic.
Played entirely straight as it is here, 42nd Street just lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. An ironic edge might bring some humour, more earnestness might bring it real heart (although that’s questionable) and so it never catches fire as often as one feels it might. Monique Young’s Peggy sings and dances well without blossoming into the star she needs to be, Ria Jones and Alexander Hanson both play it a little too safe with their stagey characters, only Dan Burton of the leads really lives up to the star billing and Jennie Dale’s writer is a rare supporting character who stands out.
Musical director Gareth Valentine ensures his orchestra sound never less than superlative and even if you’re not buying the story, then the visual impact of Mears and McKintosh’s work is always on hand to bring the wow factor. With London getting its own production of the show next year though, directed by Bramble no less, I’d struggle to recommend making a trip especially to see this particular version, even with choreography delivered as well as this.