42nd Street review — as close as you’ll get to having a pop-up musical in your living room
Upstairs at the Gatehouse, N6
Anyone looking for an all-out extravaganza would be advised to pass by on the other side. But if a fringe venue above a pub in north London can’t compete with the West End in terms of glitz, there’s still an awful lot to savour in this less-is-more version of the backstage yarn that enjoyed such a successful run in Drury Lane.
The director John Plews cuts everything down to basics without sacrificing the spirit of a show that is an old-fashioned love letter to musical theatre. The storyline is paper-thin; the Harry Warren-Al Dubin songs are irresistible. And if the production has to get by with a skeleton cast and a breezy, six-piece band, the choreographer Simon Adkins is a veteran of the Drury Lane production. We are safe in his hands.
It takes all of five minutes to adjust to the reduced sense of scale. As the young cast tap and shimmy their way along the traverse stage, only feet from the audience, the physical sensation is overpowering. This is as close as most of us are going to get to having a pop-up musical staged in our living room.
It’s a hokey tale, perhaps, but as reassuringly predictable in its way as a panto. A young wannabe from the boondocks, Peggy Sawyer, wants to see her name in lights and gets her chance in a new show, Pretty Lady, when the star injures an ankle. Can Peggy learn all those songs and routines in a matter of days? Well, the question can have only one answer.
As Peggy, Kate-Anne Fenton is chipper and demure. Tamsin Dowsett gets the meatier lines as Dorothy Brock, the leading lady whose career has already peaked. Alex Wadham exudes authority, and a smidgin of vulnerability, as Julian Marsh, the archetypal director-cum-dictator with a heart of gold.
Harry Warren’s name isn’t usually uttered in the same breath as Irving Berlin and co, but as Michael Feinstein demonstrated in a mesmerising one-man show in the West End many moons ago, Warren bequeathed us a remarkably long list of classic tunes. We’re in the Money, Lullaby of Broadway and About a Quarter to Nine shimmer here.
Emily Bestow’s set enhances the spit-and-sawdust backstage ambience. The musical director and arranger John Reddel leads a band that, largely hidden from view, embellishes the standards with authentically jazzy joie de vivre. The thoroughfare that the hoofers call “the glorious gulch” may be less crowded than usual, but it hasn’t lost its allure.