42nd Street continues at Theatre du Chatelet, Paris until 8 January.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
Now here’s a great idea for a Christmas present (especially if someone else pays for it): best seats at the glorious 1,800-seater Chatelet on the banks of the Seine, Eurostar tickets (cheap right now) and the sharpest tap dancing and choreography you’ll see on Planet Earth.
There are Saturday and Sunday matinees in 42nd Street’s seven-week run, so if you’re a skinflint you can even do the trip in a day and save on the hotel. Not that romantic you would ever want to miss spending a night in Gay Paree even at this grey time of year…
The upbeat theme of ‘the 100-1 outsider who ends up a winner’ – in which life imitated art 32 years ago when this big Broadway hit premiered in London and a teenage Catherine Zeta-Jones stepped out of chorus-line obscurity when lead and understudy both suddenly became unavailable to launch her glittering career – will surely banish those winter blues.
Here Monique Young plays the innocent ingenue from the sticks (Allentown, Pennsylvania!) who conquers Depression-era Broadway after authoritarian impresario Julian Marsh gambles on her when his diva (Ria Jones, reprising her Leicester Curve role from 2011) breaks an ankle.
Young dances her pretty socks off but still only partly manages to establish a character the audience can root for, the fault of a clunky script which must have caught the mood of Broadway when it first arrived there in 1980 because it ran for eight years and almost 3,500 performances.
These days, though, the jokes seem laboured, the story just as hard to work out (is it Marsh she fancies or leading man Billy Lawlor?) and the dialogue, for me, is short of genuine humour or wit.
For lovers of tap, it’s an orgy of breakneck old-style song-and-dance from a huge, tireless ensemble; for others who find a little tap can go a long way, even the brilliance of director Stephen Mear’s work with routines and dazzling sets cannot camouflage the shortcomings of the book (the 2001 revise by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble of Bradford Ropes’ 1932 novel).
Of course, there are the classic songs (Harry Warren’s tunes, Al Dubin’s words). Who hasn’t known and loved ‘Lullaby of Broadway’, ‘We’re in the Money’’, ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ and the ever-hummable title track? But they always seem to be playing second fiddle even when the immaculate Ria Jones is the voice.
Dan Burton, paying a return visit to the Chatelet having played the lead in Singin’ in the Rain there in 2014, has few peers when it comes to tap and he’s bang on the money as Billy Lawlor, Alexander Hanson makes Marsh a sympathetic tyrant with an undying love for showbusiness mixed with regret that he’s no longer one of those kids with their dreams, while in the supporting cast Jennie Dale is hugely likeable as larger-than-life writer Maggie Jones.
Ever-reliable MD Gareth Valentine gets everything out of a 26-strong orchestra in conveying the music of this backstage musical that always seems on the brink of crisis while Peter McKintosh’s stylish costumes catch the eye at every turn.
The Chatelet has never scrimped on staging these English-language blockbusters and they’re not starting now in this final Broadway musical until 2019 while the theatre closes down for a sizeable makeover.
Chatelet director-general Jean-Luc Choplin, whose farewell production this is after a decade at the helm, has much to look back on with pride, introducing his idol Stephen Sondheim to a Paris audience that knew little about him, as well as the works of other Broadway greats.
Regular doses of Sondheim apart, the Chatelet has showered much love on The Sound of Music, The King and I, My Fair Lady, Singin’ in the Rain and Kiss Me, Kate, as well as staging the world premiere of An American in Paris which then went on to dazzle New York and London.
42nd Street wouldn’t be up there with the best but it’s still an eyeful of an evening and Parisians leapt to their feet on opening night to show their appreciation.
Readers may also be interested in:
View from 42nd Street – the launch at Theatre Royal Drury Lane – News