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42nd Street - Chichester Festival (Review)

42nd Street, Chichester (2010)

Review by David Munro

AFTER the success of The Jazz Singer, Hollywood decided that what the Great American Public wanted was a diet of musical, all singing, all dancing films and proceeded accordingly.

The GAP reacted unfavourably and by the beginning of the ’30s were avoiding musicals, which became a dirty word in Los Angeles.

However, in 1933 Warner Brothers decided to make a film of a back stage novel by Bradford Ropes about a dying theatre director, Julian Marsh, and his last show.

The plot involved a drunken leading lady, Dorothy Brock, whose part is ultimately performed by a chorus girl, Peggy Sawyer, suggested by the juvenile lead Billy Lawlor, (who in the book was the lover of the director!) and the chorus girl becomes a star.

The book was enlivened with wisecracks about showbusiness, many of which were enshrined in the film such as “she only said “no” once and then she didn’t hear the question” referring to a “good-time” chorine.

This was transformed into a musical film, 42nd Street, and its songs and dances were staged by a Broadway choreographer – Busby Berkeley.

The film was a success, making stars of Ruby Keeler, as Peggy Sawyer, and Dick Powell, as Billy (now Peggy’s boyfriend), and ensuring a run of similar films with the Berkeley choreographic style of semi-clad chorines in kaleidoscopic routines which persisted to the end of the ’30s and did very nicely for the brothers Warner.

In 1980, David Merrick, then a prominent Broadway producer, decided to turn it into a stage musical, which was to be directed by a dying Gower Champion. At the end of a very successful opening night, Merrick came forward to announce that Gower Champion had died that afternoon – who says life doesn’t imitate art!

The stage musical, which uses the film score plus several other numbers by the original composer and lyricist (Harry Warren and Al Dubin), ran for a good while on Broadway and subsequently had a good run at Drury Lane.

It is now revived at the Chichester Festival in a splendidly opulent production which is a feast for the eye and ear. The director Paul Kerryson makes good use of the open stage and utilises trapdoors to bring on intimate scenes or a dancing chorus.

It is, in effect, a song and dance show and although at times the dancing of the chorus was ragged, on the whole Andrew Wright’s choreography, making the maximum use of tap dancing, came across effectively; particularly in the solos and small ensembles of three or four of the chorus with (or without) a principal.

The singing was good and I must congratulate the Billy (Oliver Brenin) who managed successfully to meld strenuous routines with very acceptable vocals.

It was, I think, unfortunate to ask Dorothy Brock (Kathryn Evans) to clown. Miss Evans is a fine singer but she is no comedienne and the comedy did not suit her character.

In all other respects, Miss Evans gave life to the character as written and her scene where she encourages Peggy before the show was very moving.

Lauren Hall’s Peggy Sawyer was a pretty little chorine but she gave no hint at any time during her otherwise efficient performance that she would have wowed Broadway or even Chichester – but then neither did Ruby Keeler, so she is in good company!

Nor did I find Tim Flavin a credible Julian Marsh. Mr Flavin is one of the best dancers on the stage today. Since he first hit London in On Your Toes in the ’80s his dancing prowess has supported many subsequent musicals.

He is not, to my mind, a tough Broadway director and his attempts to dominate his performers, and others, did not ring true. I had also hoped that he would have been given an opportunity to dance, but apart from a few desultory steps his feet remained firmly on the stage.

Christopher Howell and Louise Plowright made the most of their roles as a “Comden and Green” pair of playwrights, although apart from appearing in a couple or so numbers they did not add anything to the plot.

But the story is, in effect, a fairytale and to judge it as a great dramatic work of art is ludicrous. In this production, Cinderella goes to her particular ball in a superbly mounted production with enchanting stage effects and transformations.

My cavils should in no way be allowed to denigrate the fact that 42nd Street, as mounted in Chichester, is an entertaining, well staged and most enjoyable musical and one which, judging from the audience when I saw it, succeeds in achieving 100 per cent what it set out to achieve.

After last year’s Oklahoma, it is a welcome return to the usual high quality and standard that Chichester has shown in its musical productions over the years and can be highly recommended.

42nd Street
Book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble
Lyrics – Al Dubin
Music – Harry Warren
Director – Paul Kerryson
Choreographer – Andrew Wright
Designer – Ashley Martin-Davis
Costume Designer – George Souglides
Lighting – Chris Ellis
Sound – Matt McKenzie
Musical Director – Julian Kelly

CAST: Karen Aspinall; Oliver Brenin; Alan Burkitt; Matthew Cheney; Lisa Dent; Lisa Donmall; Kathryn Evans; Luke Fetherston; Tim Flavin; Steve Fortune; Jane Fowler; Lauren Hall; Steven Houghton; Chris Howell; Lucinda Lawrence; David Lucas; Matthew Malthouse; Peter McCarthy; Kate Nelson; Louise Plowright; Pippa Raine; Nancy Wei George; Jason Winter; Gary Wood.

Chichester Festival Theatre, Oaklands Park, Chichester, West Sussex, PO19 6AP.
In repertory: June 21 – August 28, 2010.
Evenings 7.30pm/Matinees: Wed, Thurs. & Sat: 2pm
Box Office: 01234 781312