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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Nick Curtis

42nd Street at Sadler’s Wells review: when its star is onstage this love letter to Broadway is pure pleasure

When the tap routines are in full flight and luminous ingenue Nicole-Lily Baisden is onstage, this love letter to Depression-era Broadway is a pure pleasure. The narrative filler between the big numbers, and some surprising misfires from the star cast, are less thrilling. Jonathan Church’s production is an odd mix of big-budget glitz and touring-show mediocrity. It can shift you from elation to boredom and back again within minutes. Luckily, elation mostly wins.

This show was always a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster. In 1980, writers Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble adapted the Busby Berkeley-choreographed 1933 film 42nd Street, augmenting the soundtrack of Harry Warren and Al Dubin with numbers they wrote for other movies, and a few bits and bobs from elsewhere. Their stage version won two Tony awards including Best Musical but its director-choreographer Gower Champion died on opening night.

This has only added to the schmaltz encrusting the show’s celebration of showbiz resilience. Some of the tunes – We’re In the Money, Shuffle Off to Buffalo, Lullaby of Broadway and the rousing title track – are among the best in the interwar songbook. But the cliché of a chorus-girl who becomes a star, along with the attendant paraphernalia of dictatorial directors, sugar-daddy investors, and good-hearted hoofers now feels desperately old-fashioned.

Nicole Lily Baisden as Peggy Sawyer and Sam Lips as Billy Lawlor (Johan Persson)

When Baisden steps on stage you forget all that. She has tremendous syncopation, a beautiful and powerful voice, and an almost unquenchable vivacity. Her star-making performance here would perfectly mirror the arc of her character, Peggy Sawyer, if she hadn’t already wowed audiences in Anything Goes at the Barbican. Here, she’s well paired with Broadway actor Sam Lips, who brings a rubber-ball springiness and a sonorous tenor to the role of her love-interest, Billy.

It’s the “names” in the cast that disappoint. Musical veterans Ruthie Henshall and Adam Garcia are wooden and charmless in the roles of has-been star Dorothy and martinet director Julian. Henshall also brings a harsh, abrasive edge to her songs, even the wistful About a Quarter to Nine.

Ruthie Henshall plays Dorothy Brock (Johan Persson)

Michael Praed seems to have wandered off the street and into the role of Dorothy’s old flame Pat. Les Dennis shrugs, shuffles and speak-sings his way through the laborious part of writer/comedian Bert. Thank goodness for another musical veteran, Josefina Gabrielle, who delivers the sassily tart part of onstage matriarch Maggie with consummate professionalism.

Robert Jones’s set turns the necessity (for a touring show) of copious backdrops into a virtue with ravishing art nouveau and art deco imagery. And he does, of course, provide an illuminated staircase for the cast to rat-tat-tat their way down like an advancing army, equipped with tap shoes and canes rather than machine guns.

The Company perform a musical number (Johan Persson)

There’s something about the sheer, silly exhilaration of tap that’s downright irresistible, particularly when marshalled into a formidable chorus line as it is by choreographer Bill Deamer here. But this is the only musical in my memory where I’ve seen not one but two performers take a tumble. A reminder that 42nd Street is as relentless and demanding as Pretty Lady, the show within a show for which Julian demands that his cast “dance till your feet fall off”.

As Lips hoisted Baisden into a dramatic lift during the finale I thought I saw an anxious look pass between them. By the time her feet touched the stage again, that high-wattage smile was back on. What a star.

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