Billed as “the original showbiz musical” it would be more astute to call it a Frankensteinian opulent 80s rework. Isn’t that a catchy nickname? Resurrected from a 1933 musical film of the same name producer David Merrick spliced the original lyrics from famed songwriters Al Dubin and Johnny Mercer and music by Harry Warren. Sprinkling in other songs from the Dublin and Warren’s back-catalogue.
What we get is an early 30s tale of stardom amidst economic depression through the eyes of the 1980s. In short, a slightly odd view. After clearing up most of those little golden statues in its premiere it has subsequently been reprised across the globe. Will London do it again? We certainly will after only a 6-year absence.
The musical within a musical premise is simple and merely a vehicle to drive frenetic tap routines and swooning tunes. Nicole-Lily Baisden jumps from her success playing the sweet wide-eyed beauty in the Barbican’s recent production of Anything Goes to playing…..the sweet wide-eyed ambitious beauty Peggy Sawyer. Peggy travels from small-town America to be ON The Great White Way. There she finds fame, love, and laughter, you get the gist.
The lack of much plot would be jarring if the musical wasn’t quite so self-aware. Amidst the trials and tribulations of demanding aging stars, scandals, and ambition one song states “But who cares if there’s a plot or not, When they’ve got a lot of dames!” and they’re not kidding. 18 or so high kicking, demonically smiling Broadway babies, decked in glitter and gold, jazz handing almost angrily throughout the show. A chorus line indeed. Blinded by the costumes and deafened by the thunderous tapping horde advancing towards us like Genghis Khan’s riders. We are trampled into submission by the sheer athleticism of the undertaking. Baisden herself a lythe dancer finishes the show with a sequence that looks almost lethal. Her smile stays put, and she doesn’t falter but something in her eyes betrays the strain, blink twice if you’re in danger darling. Never have legs flown so high, never have smiles gleamed so bright, never have eyes strained so wide in joy.
Surrounding our ingénues naïve devotion to the theatre is a solid cast designed to either fall in love with or be obstacles to her success. The premier of these is the musical theatre legend Ruthie Henshall as Dorothy Brock. The original star of Pretty Girl (the show within the show). She brings a smoky, steamy richness to her songs that almost outshine Baisden’s bright vocals. Her character is the only female with any edge, and she milks this for all its worth. Josefina Gabrielle as Pretty Girl’s writer Maggie Jones and Sarah-Marie Maxwell as Anytime Annie also try their best to boost the comedy stock of the show. Yet on the whole this tale is an earnest exploration of Broadway and American-dream-style-starry-eyed-idealism. Our male love interests sing well, Adam Garcia as the bullying producer Julian Marsh and Sam Lips as dreamy Billy Lawlor. But we never really get under the surface of them as characters. Boy oh boy can they shuffle though, and with flying limbs like these, who needs Chekhov?
Despite the exhausting dance routines, there is something in the stardust that doesn’t quite twinkle. Jonathan Chruch’s directing captures the pizzazz of the musical, but with dull set changes and bumpy comedy proves to be a small let down. Robert Jones’s set is all Art Deco glory, really taking advantage of the size of Sadler’s Wells. His costumes may gleam but fade a little into the background, a touch predictable.
If I were to be cynical (shocking I know) I would call 42nd Street Sondheim’s Follies just without the psychological grittiness or Nowel Coward’s Anything Goes without the boat or wit. But cynicism aside this is a musical for people who love musicals. The songs are vaguely familiar, the dance routines long, numerous, and deeply impressive and the overall effect pleasant if not ground-breaking. Leave with the drumming of tap shoes still ringing in your head and the scent of love still heavy in the air.
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