If you’ve a melancholy case of the blues, I’ve got a remedy for you: escape to Broadway with 42nd Street at Milton Keynes Theatre this week.
As a classy celebration of show business, this musical has everything you could wish for. A simple yet inspiring and uplifting story. Compelling characters. Engaging staging. Stunning costumes. Catchy songs. And, best of all, lots of dynamic dance routines that are full of taptastic personality.
Talented triple-threat performers demonstrate without any doubt that there’s a sunny side to every situation. Consequently, you really can’t help but smile throughout.
It’s 1933 and big-time theatre director Julian Marsh is doing a show! Mounting a new musical extravaganza during the Great Depression is no mean feat – particularly as leading lady Dorothy Brock has two left feet. Enter small-town girl Peggy Sawyer, a newbie in New York who charms her way into the chorus. Delighted to be kicking up her heels as a kid in line, it’s not long until a rare opportunity arises for Peggy to shine her light centre stage. Will she rise to the challenge of going out a youngster but coming back a star?
The production opens with projections of black-and-white news footage, interspersed with dimly lit glimpses of dance warm-ups and rehearsals played out on the stage. Atmospheric lighting (moody shadows, entertaining use of silhouettes, dramatic spotlights) and bubbly, believable characters instantly set the scene for a backstage story about a Broadway show.
A grim reality of inflation and unemployment fades away as we are swept up in lively dialogue, spirited dancing, big dreams and a smattering of romance. Pep talks and post-audition notes reveal the divine dichotomy of work and wonder underpinning the performing arts. The weeks of “grind and blood and sweat” poured into the creation of a glitzy show. The rhapsody of laughter and tears that produces a symphony of mesmerising musical magic. The passion and persistence required to “dance until your feet fall off, until you’re not able to stand up”.
Thanks to its musical-within-a-musical format, 42nd Street features a hit parade of spectacular group song-and-dance numbers, as well as stirring solo moments. ‘Go Into Your Dance’, ‘42nd Street’, ‘We’re In The Money’ and ‘Lullaby Of Broadway’ instantly [tap] spring to mind, but each and every tune is [forty] second to none. As the characters strive to prepare for the premiere of their new musical, Pretty Lady, we are treated to various madcap moments and become part of the show ourselves.
Director Jonathan Church and choreographer Bill Deamer have made the most of every raw emotion and every ounce of rhythm. The storytelling is well paced and poignant and the dancing is punchy and polished. Any qualms about a potential lack of a sense of scale for this touring production are soon forgotten thanks to the joyful performances delivered by the entire cast.
Michael Praed (he boasts numerous theatre and film credits, but soap viewers will recognise him from his role as Frank Clayton in Emmerdale) is appealingly assured as demanding, detail-oriented director, Julian Marsh. When he says “listen – and you listen good” everyone is listening. When he sings ‘Lullaby Of Broadway’ his presence is commanding and persuasive. Gravity? Gusto? Galvanising speeches? Yes, yes, yes.
Faye Tozer (yes, Faye from Steps, she previously visited Milton Keynes Theatre with Singin’ in the Rain) is a delight as one of the writers of Pretty Lady, quick-witted Maggie Jones. Whether dancing, singing, or ribbing the other writer, Bert Barry (played by Kevin Brewis on press night), she is poised and personable.
Samantha Womack (lots of credits, but instantly familiar to many as Ronni Mitchell in EastEnders) provides prima donna pouts and plenty of panache as diva Dorothy Brock. However, she also embraces the fragility that lies behind that hard-as-nails exterior. This means we still want Dorothy to live her song and find happiness.
Sam Lips (whose theatre credits include the roles of Don Lockwood in Singin’ in the Rain and Scott Hastings in Strictly Ballroom) is debonair as tapping tenor Billy Lawlor. As the romantic lead of Pretty Lady and a romantic interest for Peggy, Billy needs to demand our attention and Sam more than fulfils the brief. He dazzles in every number.
Nicole-Lily Baisden (The Book of Mormon and Anything Goes) is a shining star as fresh-faced Broadway hopeful Peggy Sawyer. She taps with incredible speed and precision, sings like a bird, turns on a dime. She completely embodies the starry-eyed dreamer with a heart of gold – and a lucky scarf. Her infectious enthusiasm really ought to convince anyone who watches her to take up dancing.
Unsurprisingly, the hard-working hoofers who make up the ensemble are always on the go. They sing their hearts out while tapping up a storm. They make their own music with syncopated beats and rhythms, but the immersive experience created when the live musicians in the pit play the showtunes as accompaniment is breathtaking.
Julian Marsh appraises his star with the comment: “you got by and they like you”. My feedback to the cast of 42nd Street? You showed us the restorative power of a well-drilled song-and-dance number and the audience loved you!
Running time: Approximately 2 hours 35 minutes, including an interval.
*Production photography by Johan Persson.
This review is also featured on Total MK.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.