Now onstage at Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre
Credit: Johan Persson. Pictured: The Company
"Eye-popping and firecracker tap dancing are only some of the respectful nods in Jonathan Church’s homage to the ‘42nd Street’ show biz from long ago. Splashy and splendid with frivolous frivolity."
‘42nd Street’ is the story of every showbiz hopeful who wants to play on the New York theatre stage. It’s 1933, smack dab in the Depression. Breadlines are common, and that’s where many ‘wanna-be’ actors would probably find themselves if they weren’t cast in a show. Brusque taskmaster Julian Marsh (Adam Garcia) directs the new musical ‘Pretty Lady’ written by Maggie Jones (Josefina Gabrielle) and Bert Barry (Michael Matus).
This new production of 'Pretty Lady' stars ageing theatre diva Dorothy Brock (Ruthie Henshall), who doesn’t believe she has to audition for anything and shouldn’t have to do so since she is a star. Because of her attitude, Marsh can sense that Dorothy might be a potential problem. He still insists Brock sings one of the musical numbers. Dorothy does, but it’s not her best. However, the diva reminds everyone that her ‘sugar daddy’ Abner Dillon (Anthony Ofoegbu) fronts $100 K for the show on the condition she remains the star. Dorothy is also fooling around on Abner with Pat Denning (Michael Praed), the man for whom she claims to be ‘genuinely’ in love.
Marsh’s assistant, Andy Lee (Alyn Hawke), has put the chorus kids through their intricate tap dance audition routine at the top of the show. When the chorus is finally cast, newcomer hopeful and naive Peggy Sawyer (Nicole-Lily Baisden) enters. She couldn’t make the initial audition because she had to steel herself to walk through the doors of the building. Charming and full of himself, tenor Billy Lawlor (Olly Christopher at this performance) is smitten with Peggy and tells her not to fear that she missed the audition as he’ll do his best to get the young lady into the show. On a whim, Peggy is cast in the chorus.
Peggy shares that she has always admired Dorothy Brock and hopes to attain that same fame. Brock has no time for the up-and-coming young actors in ‘Pretty Lady.’ During an out-of-town Philadelphia tryout, Dorothy accidentally becomes injured. She breaks her ankle during a performance when Peggy misses a cue and claims the young ingenue intentionally did so.
The threat of cancelling the show looms. Out of shame for what happened, Peggy decides to return to her hometown thinking show business is not for her. After thinking of others who could possibly replace Dorothy, the other cast members believe Peggy can save ‘Pretty Lady’ by stepping into the star’s role.
Will Peggy be successful and save the show?
I had seen my first production of ‘42nd Street’ in London’s West End in 1986. A bit of historical information – a young Catherine Zeta-Jones performed in the ensemble. That 1986 production was splashy, peppered with frivolous frivolity and combined with beautiful young chorines who were all legs, all smiles, and all ready to enter the spotlight when places were called.
Fast forward to 2023. This UK production, directed by Jonathan Church, is still all that. It’s splashy and splendid with frivolous frivolity. Beautiful girls (or dames as they’re called in a musical number) are dressed in spectacular and dazzling costumes designed by Robert Jones. The breathless and stunning choreography in Bill Deamer’s musical staging remains one of the primo highlights of this opening night. There’s something about seeing and hearing firecracker tap dancing performed in tremendously sharp syncopation by this impressive ensemble that transcends right to the very human soul.
But is that all there is to ‘42nd Street’? Why are audiences still fascinated with this chestnut?
I don’t believe labelling this ‘42nd Street’ with that term is fair.
Some terrific musical numbers staged by Bill Deamer appear in the 1933 film - ‘We’re in the Money’ and ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ and, of course, the title song. Consider why ’42nd Street’ was popular in the 1930s. The world was in the throes of the Great Depression. Money was tight, prices soared, and people were out of work. Everyone wanted escapism, even for a couple of hours, from the grim reminders of the times they were in.
Sounds somewhat familiar once again, doesn’t it? We’re not in a Depression (some might argue that), but we’re constantly looking for escapism from the reminders of the world we know right now with the return of the ‘C’ word and all that entails.
This ‘42nd Street’ appears to be what we just need right now.
Sure, the plot based on the motion picture is hokey, but again, who cares?
If you’re not leaving the Princess of Wales with a smile, especially since the production plays through the Christmas/holiday season right to mid-January, then this splendid company has not done its job.
Robert Jones's set design appears art deco (ish), sometimes with tubular and lean angles. Jon Driscoll’s projection designs of black and white news footage during the overture remind us of the theatre district of New York from the 1930s. Ben Cracknell’s sleek lighting design illuminates a sultry and sexy atmosphere at the beginning of the musical number ‘Forty-Second Street.’ The neon lighting is another wonderful throwback to the 30s. Campell Young’s Makeup and hair/wig designs and Jones’s costume designs are beautiful recreations of the 30s fashions, from the dark pinstripe suits on the men to the frilly and lacy notions on the ladies’ costumes.
Kudos to Sound Designers Ian Dickinson and Gareth Tucker. The melodies and lyrics in ‘42nd Street’ deserve to be heard, and they are in all their glorious sound.
The wondrous creative team charmingly takes the audience back some 90 years ago with a respectful nod to the era. Jonathan Church directs the production with heart, maintaining the classic verisimilitude look and sound of the 1930s and the film. There are nasal, bimbo-sounding chorus girls with hints of sexism evident in the theatre industry at that time. Bill Deamer’s choreography remains one of the resplendent highlights of the show. Musical Supervisor Jennifer Whyte, Larry Blanks’ orchestrations, and Donald Johnston’s additional orchestrations combined with Philip J. Lang’s original orchestrations sound exquisite.
The cast is terrific.
Ruthie Henshall remains deliciously catty, pretentious, and self-absorbing as diva Dorothy Brock. Henshall incorporates a gravelly-sounding gruffness in her voice which aptly works because it indicates an ageing star slowly recognizing that time moves on. She looks great in the array of costumes she wears.
Nicole-Lily Baisden is quite lovely as budding ingenue Peggy Sawyer. Baisden is a remarkable triple-threat performer of acting, dance and singing. There is a line voiced by Henshall as Dorothy when she tells Peggy: “Now go out there and be so good it’ll make me hate you.” Baisden is quite good, and it is most appropriate she takes the final bow at the curtain call.
Adam Garcia’s Julian Marsh initially didn’t ring true as headstrong director Julian Marsh in the first act. However, I am the first to admit when I’m wrong. In Act 2, Garcia scales the heights of the director who pushes and pushes because he wants the best performance out of someone. Garcia closes out the show with his finale of ‘Forty-Second Street,’ which made my jaw drop. I got goosebumps listening to him vocalize the title song. Fantastic.
Supporting characters are solid. Olly Christopher sings and dances with charisma and charm as Billy Lawlor. In the second act, Josefina Gabrielle and Michael Mateus are hilarious in their rendition of ‘Shuffle Off to Buffalo.’ Anthony Ofoegbu pokes fun at the look and the vocal sound of the 30s proverbial ‘sugar daddy.’
Final Comments: Tremendous fun. Give yourselves a Christmas/holiday gift and see ‘42nd Street’. Travel back to New York and its show biz from long ago.
Running time: approximately two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission.
‘42nd Street’ runs until January 21, 2024, at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King Street West, Toronto. For tickets: mirvish.com or call 1-800-461-3333.
Music by Harry Warren and Lyrics by Al Dubin.
Book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble
Original Direction and Dances by Gower Champion
Originally produced on Broadway by David Merrick
Directed by Jonathan Church
Musical Supervisor: Jennifer Whyte
Choreography and Musical Staging by Bill Deamer
Set and Costume Design: Robert Jones
Hair/Wig and Makeup Design: Campell Young
Sound Designers: Ian Dickinson and Gareth Tucker
Projection Design: Jon Driscoll
Lighting Design: Ben Cracknell
Performers: Ruthie Henshall, Adam Garcia, Josefina Gabrielle, Nicole-Lily Baisden, Michael Matus, Sam Lips, Michael Praed, Anthony Ofoegbu, Erica-Jayne Alden, George Beet, Charlie Bishop, Kevin Brewis, Olly Christopher, Briana Craig, Jordan Crouch, Ashleigh Graham, Alyn Hawke, Aimee J Hodnett, Connor Hughes, Deja Linton, Sarah-Marie Maxwell, Greta McKinnon, Ben Middleton, Benjamin Mundy, Jessica Wright.