A trip to the theatre is something I strongly associate with Christmas. Dance lessons as a young girl meant performing in my school’s annual pantomime, usually as some form of fairy. Ballet I discovered later: The Nutcracker and Swan Lake contributed to my love of classical music. Completing the circle, each year at music school included a trip to the latest musical such as Les Misérables.
When I received an invite from Théâtre du Châtelet to preview 42nd Street, their latest musical production, I didn't hesitate in accepting! It’s a giant of a musical but one that has escaped me thus far. Having enjoyed the theatre’s productions of Singin’ in the Rain last year, and Kiss Me Kate earlier this year, I knew that I was in for a treat. Dust off your tap shoes (just kidding) and limber up for a musical extravaganza.
42nd Street is set at the height of the Great Depression (1932 and 1933) and tells the story of revered Broadway director Julien Marsh who has been left financially ruined. We see Julien putting all his energy into a new Broadway show called Pretty Lady whilst simultaneously following the drama that unfolds behind the scenes. Audience members are thrown straight in from the very first musical beat, as spectators to dance auditions for Pretty Lady. The characters are quickly introduced: inexperienced but talented Peggy Sawyer, fresh off the bus from suburban Allentown, Pennsylvania. Billy Lawlor, the chirpy and good looking leading tenor in the show, takes a shine to Peggy and helps her snag an audition despite arriving late. Dorothy Brock, a stage diva past her prime, provides much of the musical’s light relief and bittersweet moments. Then there's Dorothy's southern sugar daddy, Abner Dillon, who is financing production costs. Tensions run high as the show comes together with little to no rehearsal time and Julien veers from one disaster to another.
The capable cast are in the safe hands of director Stephen Mears, award-winning English choreographer and dancer, known for his work in the West End (Mary Poppins). Stephen is no stranger to Théâtre du Châtelet - he choreographed last year's production of Singin' in the Rain. His experience with the theatre is evident: whether musical numbers involve the whole cast or just a few, the stage never feels too cramped or too empty.
Costumes are as eye-catching as you’d expect from a musical, ranging from iconic top hat and tails for the men to more risqué outfits for the women. Dance sequences are well paced: energetic, foot-stomping routines are wisely interspersed with slower, emotive numbers. My personal favourites include the titular song, appearing at the end of Act II. This exuberant number features the whole cast, its haunting lyrics and sultry jazz sequences evoking New York's Broadway district in the 1930's. I also have a soft spot for "Lullaby of Broadway", a punchy ditty that starts off slow between Peggy and Julien before building to another ensemble effort. It's a pivotal moment that convinces Peggy to stay, thus taking her shot at musical stardom on Broadway.
Once again I applaud Théâtre du Châtelet for providing some much-needed escapism over the Christmas and New Year period. Musical theatre is relatively new to Paris, especially when compared to London and New York's vibrant theatre scene. Jean-Luc Chopin, Châtelet's director general for the past decade, must be credited for taking big strides to educate Parisian theatregoers on a musical genre that is not part of their cultural DNA. Paris (and France) has suffered significant pain in 2015 and 2016, causing fear and devastating loss for its inhabitants. Thank you to Châtelet for helpfully reminding us all that the show must go on.
42nd Street runs until 08 January 2017.
Running time is 2h35 (including intermission).
You can book tickets here.
Photo Credits: Théâtre du Châtelet.