42nd Street, Sadler’s Wells, 2023
Photo: Johan Persson
  • Theatre, Musicals
  • Recommended


42nd Street

4 out of 5 stars

Irresistibly joyous new production of the tap-tastic musical about a musical


Time Out says

Natty little top hats? Check. Bamboo canes swung with wild abandon? Check. A light-up staircase that leads enticingly up to the heavens? Check and check. Johnathan Church’s new production of the shimmering 1933 Busby Berkeley movie turned-stage musical is a sequin-studded riot. 

Sure, the plot of this golden age classic has always been flimsy at best: young hopeful Peggy Sawyer wants to make it as a stage star, and by god, she does! But there are enough epic displays of tap prowess to make up for anything as dreary as a watertight plot. 

A musical about a musical, the deeply meta ‘42nd Street’ sees a fast-talking, hard-working gang of Depression-era New York dancers all eagerly attempting to break Broadway with a show called ‘Pretty Lady’. Their demanding star Dorothy Brock is played to prissy perfection by West End veteran Ruthie Henshall, who channels both the great Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard and Joan Crawford in ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ with terrifying accuracy, first swishing about in a pink marabou gown and later seething from the confines of a lavish wooden wheelchair.

Our peek behind the velvet curtain focuses less on the original show’s slightly iffy gender politics – ‘Dames’, a ritzy number about the only reason men would ever want to go to the theatre, is deliciously underplayed – and instead we focus on the fabulous. Like Henshall, Josefina Gabrielle digs into Hollywood’s walk of fame for inspiration, pulling a wisecracking slapstick amalgam of Rosalind Russell and Lucille Ball out of the bag for her take on ‘Pretty Lady’s sassy script-writer Maggie Jones.

But it’s Nicole-Lily Baisden as the wide-eyed Peggy Sawyer from the backwaters of Allentown, Pennsylvania, who deserves the most praise, not least for constant flawless hoofing throughout an almost three-hour long show. Her taut, tight tap routines make up for the fact that the cast isn’t quite large enough to fully fill the stage to the sharp new moves from designer-choreographers Bill Deamer and Rob Jones, even if the sight of a dozen dancers kicking it out to classics such as ‘We're in the Money’ and a majestic finale of the title tune is never less than extremely joyful. Impressive too is Sam Lips as Billy Lawlor, whose turn as Don Lockwood in the UK tour of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ has evidently prepped him well for digging into this particular era of razzle-dazzle showmanship. 

If anyone lets the side down, it’s Les Dennis as ‘Pretty Lady’s meekly sleazy producer Bert Barry, whose attempt at Noo Yoik patter never quite sticks. But who’s paying attention to accents when there’s this much sparkle elsewhere? 


£7.50-£110. Runs 2hrs 35min
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