Review: 42nd Street

by Lynn on December 18, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto, Ont. Plays until Jan. 21, 2024. Jonathan Church Theatre Productions and David Ian for Crossroads Live with David Mirvish present the Curve Production.

Music by Harry Warren

Lyrics by Al Dubin

Additional lyrics by Johnny Mercer and Mort Dixon

Book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble

Based on the novel by Bradford Ropes and the motion picture of 42nd Street.

Musical Supervision by Jennifer Whyte

Directed by Jonathan Church

Choreography and musical staging by Bill Deamer

Set and costumes by Robert Jones

Projections by Jon Driscoll

Sound by Ian Dickson and Gareth Tucker

Lighting by Ben Cracknell

Cast: Nicole-Lily Baisden

Kevin Brewis

Josefina Gabrielle

Adam Garcia

Alyn Hawke

Ruthie Henshall

Aime Hodnett

Michael Matus

Sarah-Marie Maxwell

Sam Lips

Michael Praed

Anthony Ofoegbu

and a chorus.

Lively, full of heart and smiles but the whole thing seems pared down for a show with a reputation for being such a huge musical.

Background. The Hollywood movie of the same name came out in 1933. It was the depression and people needed a lift. What better way to do it than a lavish, huge cast of tap dancers under the brilliant eye of choreographer, Busby Berkeley. It was really a backstage story of a young actress who is catapulted into a starring role when the leading lady sustains an injury. It was a huge hit.

In 1980 producer David Merrick took a chance in taking the film and creating a musical of it for the theatre. The last time that was tried it was to put Gigi on the stage (from the movie). The result was a flop.

So, Merrick took a chance. His director/choreographer was Gower Champion. On the opening night the audience saw the curtain go up about a quarter of the way and then 40 legs appeared from the knees down and began to tap dance. That was the beginning of the huge hit known as 42nd Street. It ran for 3,486 performances (1980-1989).

Gower Champion was not there to see his triumph. He died the morning of his opening night (Aug. 25, 1980) from a rare blood cancer. David Merrick told the family not to reveal the bad news until after the opening performance. At the curtain call Merrick told the assembled that Gower Champion had died that morning.

The Story. Julian Marsh is in financial trouble. He was/is a successful director/choreographer but he was hit hard by the Wall Street Crash of 1929. He needs a hit to shore up his savings and sustain his reputation.  Pretty Lady is a Broadway musical that he thinks will be big.  Everything is riding on the success of this show. Dorothy Brock is foisted on him as the leading lady. She is a name but can she dance or sing well? Her ‘benefactor’ Abner Dillon, a Texas millionaire, is bankrolling the show. So there is pressure to cast her. A young woman name Peggy Sawyer has just arrived by bus from Allentown, Pennsylvania and wants to be in show business but she missed the audition. Some chorus girls take pity on her and Peggy is given a chance. She’s got real talent. Dorothy Brock has an accident on stage, breaks her leg and it looks like the show will close out of town. But wait. Peggy has talent. She can learn the leading lady’s part and several dance numbers (that the leading lady didn’t have to learn) in two days, no problem, and be ready for her Broadway opening night.  

The Production and Comment.  42nd Street is really a show with Pretty Lady imbedded in it. The dancers in the show Pretty Lady are rehearsing a number. The women are in shorts and comfortable tops, the men are in pants, shirts and ties. It does not look as if they are in costume, but in rehearsal clothes. Did American dancers in the 1930s wear ties to their rehearsals or is this a British custom, since this is a production from London, Eng.? There are more women in the chorus than men. They all dance their hearts out and smile broadly. They know how important it is to have a job during these hard times.

Julian Marsh (Adam Garcia) is dapper in a suit and tie and anxious. He is all business, matter-of-fact and ready to get this show up. Adam Garcia plays Julian Marsh with directness but with a sense of how to massage an ego such as Dorothy Brock’s (Ruthie Henshall). She is the ‘name’ that will get people in to see the show. Whether Dorothy Brock can sing and dance is another concern. And while all of Dorothy Brock’s hauteur and attitude oozes out of Ruthie Henshall’s bristling performance you are never in doubt that she earned her reputation as ‘the star’ of her shows. Still there is that little matter that she is keeping company with Abner Dillon (Anthony Ofoegbu) a Texas millionaire who is bankrolling this show for her and she can’t stand him. Dorothy is secretly seeing Pat Denning (Michael Praed) her former show-business partner and true love.

The backstage intrigues and relationships keep piling up. When fresh-faced Peggy Sawyer (Nicole-Lily Baisden) arrives straight off the bus, suitcase still in hand, ready to audition, she’s thrown into turmoil when she learns she’s too late. She’s ready to go home.  Nicole-Lily Baisden is so winning and charming as Peggy one can see the spirit that will change her mind and get her through.

The dancing continues until Dorothy Brock is injured. Peggy accidentally bangs into her. Peggy is accused of not being in the right place. Peggy says she was. Then how did the mistake happen? One of the many unanswered questions of this production of 42nd Street/Pretty Lady, that probably didn’t bother the audiences of 1933.

What to make of it today? We don’t actually know what Pretty Lady is about, but there’s lots of dancing. There is a marriage and a divorce in the middle of it that is odd, perhaps fodder for humour. One wonders how Dorothy Brock factores into Pretty Lady, or is her backstage involvement more important? I can appreciate that Dorothy Brock is under pressure to do well, but quite often Ruthie Henshall plays her as strident and perhaps over the top when she loses her temper at her lover and her ‘benefactor.’ We all love the triumph of the underdog story. In this case it’s the unknown singer-actor-dancer who dances into the shoes of the leading lady and wins the day. And Peggy learns all the songs and the many dance routines (that Dorothy Brock never seemed to have to learn) and she does it in two days. We love stories like that.

Is it churlish to say, “I want more?” The chorus of four men and six women seems chintzy for the various dance numbers. Only in the finale does almost every one dance to suggest a big finish. Bill Deamer’s choreography seems rather repetitive no matter the scene—only the costumes change. There might be a budding relationship between Peggy Sawyer and Julian Marsh but director Jonathan Church doesn’t clearly establish what that is. Adam Garcia as Julian Marsh is sophisticated but certainly not a father figure; more an attractive ‘older’ man to the 19 year-old-Peggy. But what is that relationship? It’s muddy and not clear.    

Yes 42nd Street is fun, bursting with classic songs: “You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me,” “I Only Have Eyes For You,” “Lullaby of Broadway,” “We’re In the Money,” Forty-Second Street.” And of course all the opportunities for dancing. It’s got a happy ending (no spoiler alert, please), and it’s got a charmer in Peggy to cheer for. Perhaps one should ignore the questions; revel in the holiday spirit of the piece and tap one’s toe to the dancing.

Jonathan Church Theatre Productions and David Ian for Crossroads Live with David Mirvish present the Curve Production:

Runs until: Jan. 21, 2024

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (1 intermission)

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