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The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

42nd Street
The Shows Must Go On and YouTube      December 2020

This is a professionally done recording of the 2017 London revival of the 1980 Broadway musical based on the classic 1933 Hollywood film that tells the archetypal backstage fable of the chorus girl forced to go on for the ailing star of a Broadway musical ('You're going out there a nobody. But you've got to come back a star!')

The show was great. The recording is not.

In 1980 director-choreographer Gower Champion understood that the key to a stage version was the sheer excitement of a stageful of people dancing, and that any single minute in the show that didn't involve a few dozen people tapping their hearts out had better have a good reason why. And Mark Bramble and Randy Skinner, respectively director and choreographer of this revival, understood that.

But through either total lack of imagination or some perversity, 'screen director' Ross MacGibbon mis-shoots and actively sabotages every musical number.

Let me back up a bit. In 1980 the film's book was revised to do two things. First, it allowed the addition of several other songs of the period by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, making the score a treasure of classics, from the title song through Lullaby Of Broadway, We're In The Money, Dames, Shuffle Off To Buffalo and I Only Have Eyes For You.

And the role of the displaced diva was enlarged, giving her several songs, and softened, making her more sympathetic, to attract stars on Broadway Tammy Grimes, in London 2017, Sheena Easton followed by Bonnie Langford (seen in this recording).

Langford has fun sending up her own image as a slightly-over-the-hill star who can still deliver a big number, and the other major roles Tom Lister as the dedicated and dictatorial director of the show-with-the-show, Philip Bertioli as the love interest and this cannot be exaggerated the extraordinary collection of singer-dancer-actors who make up the chorus, are all first-rate.

But the show lives or dies with the chorine-turned-star. Although she gets only third billing, Clare Halse is the engine that drives this show, and as I said in my review HERE in 2017, she is a dancing machine, thrilling to watch. Unfortunately, as I wrote then, when she is not dancing she has about the same personality as a machine and less sexiness.

Which brings us back to TV director Ross MacGibbon. MacGibbon declares his total lack of sympathy with the material in the opening seconds, when he cuts away from Gower Champion's coup de theatre of raising the curtain less than a metre so all we see are 100-or-so tapdancing feet.

Then, when the curtain goes all the way up, instead of letting us revel in that mass display of energy, MacGibbon keeps cutting to close-ups of faces or shots of two or three chorus members at a time and dancers' faces are not what we want to see, and two or three people dancing are not the same as forty or fifty.

For one number Gower Champion called for a large tilted mirror that allowed him to recreate Hollywood choreographer Busby Berkeley's signature trick of moving his dancers to create kaleidoscope effects. MacGibbon just sticks a camera above the stage looking down, getting the effect and totally missing the fun of the inventiveness.

And when it comes time for Clare Halse's big dance numbers, MacGibbon repeatedly cuts away from her to look at individual chorus members or to focus on someone else's feet. It isn't until the post-curtain-calls finale that he pulls back and lets us see Clare Halse showing what she can do.

On stage this production of 42nd Street was exciting and delightful and loads of fun. On screen it is not.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  42nd Street 2020