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Theatre review: 42nd Street at Opera House Manchester

Perfectly synchronised song and dance <i>(Image: Johan Persson)</i>
Perfectly synchronised song and dance (Image: Johan Persson)

42nd Street is utterly joyous, a tap-dancing choral extravaganzas in the best tradition of the musical comedies of the 1930s 

I grew up on the big musical films of the 1930s and 1940s – Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds... The song and dance routines would bewitch me, and oh, those Busby Berkeley tap dances, with the entire space filled with tapping feet, spinning arms, sequins and feathers and huge toothy smiles. Last night’s show was therefore a glorious hit of nostalgia, allied with a new understanding of the sheer hard work that must go into every single scene. The talent, commitment and energy of this touring cast is just incredible. 

Great British Life: Faye Tozer 'Maggie Jones' and Les Dennis 'Bert Barry'Faye Tozer 'Maggie Jones' and Les Dennis 'Bert Barry' (Image: Johan Persson)

The stage musical was constructed in 1980, a version of the 1933 Hollywood film. The plot runs along the lines of a classic fairytale – there's a fairy godmother, a wicked witch (who comes good in the end, in Hollywood style), a chorus girl with big dreams, a handsome young man and so much sparkle and magic it spills out into the audience, who sit and gasp and laugh and cheer throughout.  

READ MORE: Les Dennis on turning 70 and his future career hopes

Set in 1933, famed Broadway show producers Jones (played by Faye Tozer) and Barry (Les Dennis) want to bring a new musical to the stage and bring in notable writer and director Julian Marsh (Michael Praed). They’re all living on a knife-edge of poverty, having lost everything in the Stock Market crash of 1929. The chorus line of boys and girls are desperate for work and come running to audition. The management team need a star and invite Dorothy Brock (Samantha Womack) to audition. Marsh is unwilling, but Brock brings with her the necessary funds from her sugar daddy, Abner Dillon (Anthony Ofoegbu). Chorus girl Peggy (Nicole Lily-Baisden) lands the first role of her career, but accidentally makes an enemy of Brock, before her star rises as high as it can go. 

Great British Life: Samantha Womack 'Dorothy Brock'.Samantha Womack 'Dorothy Brock'. (Image: Michelle George)

Cue glorious song and dance number after glorious song and dance number. There’s plenty of comedy too – Samantha Womack’s character Brock has no dance talent, and Womack’s clunky renderings of Brock’s dance scenes are beautifully done – and plenty of banter between characters.  

The set is very clever, switching from backstage rehearsal space to dressing room to front of stage sparkle and glitter as the cast put on their show. And the costumes really seal the deal, with 1930s style in every line, from the dancers’ rehearsal shorts (no leg warmers here) to the floral tea dresses (I need more tea dresses in my life) to the gold and satin of the chorus line’s big numbers. Bliss for a fashion fan. 

Great British Life: Michael Praed 'Julian Marsh' and Nicole Lily Baisden 'Peggy Sawyer'.Michael Praed 'Julian Marsh' and Nicole Lily Baisden 'Peggy Sawyer'. (Image: Johan Persson)

There are some big names in this production, and they don’t disappoint. Fresh from his short, but entertaining, stint on Strictly, Les Dennis provides comedy, stage presence and even belts out a decent song, and his performance in Shuffle off to Buffalo is a masterpiece of comic skill. Samantha Womack is marvellous as the prickly, arrogant, yet vulnerable Dorothy Brock and gives a memorable performance. Faye Tozer, she of Steps fame, has had quite the West End career and you can see why – she's absolutely brilliant in every scene, has great comedy flair and a powerful voice. Michael Praed (oh, remember the hooded man? My first crush...) has transferred from the West End to this touring class, stepping into a new role however, and he’s superb. Intense and passionate as a producer, yet delivering some marvellous comedy in his eyebrow raising pep talks. And wow, when he belts out his closing solo... Swoon. Nicole-Lily Baisden has also transferred from the West End and shows her quite extraordinary talent in every dance step and song note. Wow. Sam Lips, in the role of Billy Lawler, the tenor love interest of Peggy is also very wow – another incredible vocal talent who can dance his socks off too. 

This is why this show lifts the audience from their seats. Every number just throws its energy into the auditorium. From the massive, tightly choreographed numbers such as Keep Young and Beautiful (best not to listen to the lyrics too closely) to the poignant Boulevard of Broken Dreams (Dorothy) and the fabulous 42nd Street (and oh wow, it is truly spectacular) every moment is designed to bring you joy. 

42nd Street plays at Opera House Manchester until Saturday October 21.


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