Thursday, March 29, 2018

42nd Street - Free Rain

Review by John Lombard

If only it was possible to become a star by being nice, hard-working and ferociously talented…

42nd Street is a glamorous Cinderella story of Depression-era Broadway, with the indestructible optimism of the characters bursting out in catchy songs and energetic tap-dancing.

When legendary director Julian Marsh (Jarrad West) decides to stage new musical Pretty Lady, it means something more than glory for the chorus: it means 32 bucks a week. With the stakes set as either bounty or the breadline, Marsh reluctantly accepts diva Dorothy Brock (Louiza Blomfield) as leading lady to secure funding from her sugar daddy Abner Dillon (Michael Miller).

Director Chris Baldock’s intense passion for this musical infuses Free Rain’s new production with a necessary vitality that coaxes us to surrender to the fantasy of a euphoric “Lullaby of Broadway”.

We buy into this dream because of Sophie Highmore’s performance as star struck chorus girl Peggy Sawyer.

Highmore is a genuinely amazing dancer: when challenged to show off her tap skill in a dance duel, she conquered both her opponent and the audience.

Worse, the character is really nice - happy to be a “speck of dust” in the chorus. In real life we would be plotting her death. But Highmore’s strong singing, dancing, and character make it impossible to hate her. When the chorus decide to democratically elect the new girl as their leading lady, we believe it.

Highmore is balanced by an exceptionally strong performance from Louiza Blomfield as diva Dorothy Brock. Brock is Peggy Sawyer’s main obstacle to stardom, but Blomfield elevates her above villainy. Although a diva who is vague on lines and blocking - and a danger to herself and others on the dance floor - she is a brilliant singer and even Marsh acknowledges her star power.

The production is very kind to Brock: there is a soft acknowledgement that actors rarely do their best work when the director doesn’t want them in the show, and Brock receives ample opportunity both to shine as a star and redeem her mistakes.

Real-life director Jarrad West here plays demanding director Julian Marsh, but is more Jarrad than Julian: he says gruff things, but always sounds a shade too patient and gentle. West compensates for a bad wig by making it part of his character with fussy and vain adjustments. He gives a welcome note of blithe darkness when he calls in some mobster pals to solve a problem for him with the ease of dabbing a stain.

Sam Ward as tenor and notional romantic lead Billy Lawlor impressed with his clear and strong singing voice and bold presence, but was not quite persuasive as a lover. He played a good caricature of a leading man, but his overtures to Peggy Sawyer always seemed showy and insincere. Both Lachlan Agett as the company’s dancing master and Greg Sollis as Dorothy Brock’s lost love were more genuine, highly alert and sensitive to the moods and actions of the people around them.

Musical veterans David Cannell and Debra Byrne were a perfect comedy double act as the creators of fictional musical Pretty Lady, their relationship hinting at an entertaining comedy taking place just off stage.

The choreography in the show was perfectly pitched for the highly rehearsed performers, and had good focus on using smaller groups well. The opening wet the appetite in cinematic style by showing us just dancing feet, and the big numbers were often used to subtly tell the story: showing how klutzy Dorothy Brock is with the ensemble, or using the finale to dramatise Peggy Sawyer’s triumphant emergence as a star.

The sets were straightforward but effective, with glitzy costumes keeping the sparkle and glamour of the show mobile.

42nd Street is a fantasy of Broadway: even the mob is kind of cute. Another director might have found the material worn, but Chris Baldock's inspiration captures the show's optimistic grit, making this classic feel fresh and alive.

The only reason you wouldn’t like Free Rain’s production of 42nd Street is if you don’t like happiness.  But even then, this production might change your mind.