42nd Street at Bristol Hippodrome

ONE of the most famously memorable phrases uttered on the silver screen since in 1927 Al Jolson declared ‘You ain’t heard nothing yet’ in The Jazz Singer, the film which heralded the beginning of the Talkies, came six years later in the film 42nd Street, from which this show is taken.

The whole future of the new musical Pretty Lady company depends on the performance of inexperienced understudy Peggy Sawyer, replacing the show’s injured star Dorothy Brock on opening night. Veteran director Julian Marsh tells Peggy (played by Jolson’s then wife Ruby Keeler), “Sawyer, you’re going out there a youngster, but you gotta come back a star”.

You do not need to be a mind reader to know what happens next, because this is the classic back-stage tale. With a memorable score full of Al Dubin and Harry Warren’s hummable melodies, and dance routines based on the work of legendary choreographer Busby Berkeley, this is the king of backstage musicals.

All of that leaves this nationwide tour which, with a break for Christmas, continues through to May 2014, with a great deal to live up to. You could hardly expect director Jonathan Church and choreographer Bill Deamer to produce a show as spectacular as one of those Warner Brothers 1930s musicals, made in the days when labour was cheap with casts numbered many hundreds – but they certainly matched Warner Brothers efforts when it came to drive, energy and enthusiasm.

With the full company stylishly costumed, the big chorus numbers, particular those featuring tap dancing, like We’re in the Money, went with a swing, giving the impression that there were far more people involved than there actually were. Some of the quieter musical moments, with the well-balanced period-sounding orchestra in support, were equally well presented. Samantha Womack’s ageing and unhappy star Dorothy Brock bringing pathos to I Only Have Eyes for You and blending beautifully with her replacement Nichole-Lily Baisden’s starry-eyed Peggy Sawyer in About a Quarter to Nine.

In some recent productions it has been the fashion to take the love interest away from Peggy and the brash tenor Billy Lawler, played here by Sam Lips with all the energetic thrust expected from an ambitious juvenile lead, and place it between Peggy and Pretty Lady’s mature director Julian Marsh. It’s good to see the story taken back to the original, with Julian being Peggys admiring mentor not prospective lover. Michael Praed’s Julian, played with polish and style, fitted into this relationship between the two characters ideally.

‘Experience counts a lot you know,’ sings Lord Brockhurst in The Boy Friend, and Faye Tozer and Les Dennis proved the point, bringing all their experiences to bear on getting maximum laughs from Maggie Jones and Bert Barry, the writers of Pretty Lady. Add in a some good supporting players led by Sarah-Marie Maxwell’s sharp tongued and wise cracking Anytime Annie Reilly, and you have good use being made of the sparse dialogue as well as the music and dance.

This is an old fashioned musical in concept and presentation, and none the worse for that, producing what it sets out to do in creating a thoroughly entertaining and tuneful evening at the theatre.

The next two dates on the tour are Plymouth Theatre Royal from 7th to 12th August and the Millennium Centre in Cardiff from 14th to 19th August.


Photograph Johan Persson

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