Theater Review: Review: A New ‘42nd Street’ Opens in Paris

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Monique Young as Peggy Sawyer and Dan Burton as Billy Lawlor in a scene from the musical “42nd Street” in Paris.

Credit
Marie-Noelle Robert

“Musical comedy — the most glorious words in the English language!” So intones the character Julian Marsh midway through the musical “42nd Street,” which opened Nov. 17 at the Théâtre du Châtelet here in a new production directed by Stephen Mear.

The director of the theater, Jean-Luc Choplin, seems to stand wholeheartedly behind that statement. During his decade-long tenure, the theater has staged an astonishing 25 musicals, and has acquired a new identity as a home for the genre. “42nd Street” is the fourth lavishly staged musical to tap across its boards in the last two years. Of those, the much-acclaimed “An American in Paris” moved to Broadway, and “Singin’ in the Rain” plans to head there next year.

For the moment, “42nd Street” is not scheduled beyond Jan. 8 here, but Mr. Choplin might be hoping for a trifecta, particularly since this is his final production before he leaves and the theater closes for a two-year renovation.

He can, in any event, be assured of exiting on a high note. Mr. Mear, best-known as a choreographer of stage musicals (“Mary Poppins, “Gypsy,” “Sunset Boulevard” and the Châtelet “Singin’ in the Rain”) has directed and choreographed this “42nd Street” with a sure hand; the show — performed in English, with French surtitles — has pace, energy and visual flair, with marvelously colorful costumes and inventive décor by Peter McKintosh.

“42nd Street” is derived from the 1933 film of the same name, which was in turn loosely based on a novel by Bradford Ropes, a Broadway dancer who drew on his own experience to tell spicy tales of backstage life. The film, choreographed by Busby Berkeley, ignored most of the Ropes novel, using just its final chapters to tell a classic tale of the chorus girl who gets the big break.

The first iteration of the musical came along in 1980. Directed and choreographed by an ailing Gower Champion — whose death was announced by the producer David Merrick during the curtain calls on opening night — it followed the film’s narrative thrust, but added several songs written by the same composer, Harry Warren, and lyricist, Al Dubin.

These are familiar and infectious (“You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me,” “We’re in the Money,” “I Only Have Eyes For You”). At the Châtelet, the tap-dance sequences and Busby Berkeley-inspired visual effects, ingeniously devised by Mr. Mear, are instantly cheer-inducing.

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A scene from “42nd Street,” directed by Stephen Mear, at the Théâtre du Châtelet.

Credit
Francois Guillot/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

It is not the director’s fault that there is really no story at all, leaving the musical as a series of set pieces that make the plot of, say, “An American in Paris” look positively Dostoyevskian.

Like the movie, the musical is set in the 1930s, during the Depression. Peggy Sawyer, a novice from Allentown, Pa., is hired for a new show, “Pretty Lady,” despite missing the audition and colliding with the charismatic, dictatorial director, Julian Marsh.

When the show’s testy, over-the-hill star, Dorothy Brock, breaks her ankle on the eve of the premiere, Peggy is chosen to take her place. As Julian tells her: “You’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!”

That she will is never in doubt. Mr. Mear’s task in this “42nd Street” is not to worry about narrative suspense, or to evoke anything very real about the Depression-era poverty that is alluded to frequently, but never actually a problem. The issue for any director of this musical is to decide whether to play it straight or adopt a tone of gentle irony in the face of a cascade of showbiz clichés.

Mr. Mear plays it straight. From the moment the curtain goes up to knee height, revealing dozens of fast-tapping feet, to the final moments when Julian Marsh, alone, sings the title song, the performers offer their material with sincerity, if not always complete conviction. Often they seem to be speaking between quotation marks; then again, the dialogue is essentially a bridge between the catchy songs and exhilarating dance passages.

The casting is solid if unexciting. As Peggy, Monique Young has admirable tap and vocal skills, but only reveals a bit of starlike pizazz in the show’s big finale. Dan Burton, as the womanizing tenor, Billy Lawlor, gives an urbane rendition; and Jennie Dale as the kindhearted, bossy writer Maggie Jones felt like the only performer on a recent evening who was fully convinced by her lines.

The characters of Dorothy Brock (Ria Jones) and Julian Marsh (Alexander Hanson) are harder to pull off. Neither behave particularly plausibly, and the gears grind harshly as Dorothy must suddenly shift from badly behaved diva to benevolent mentor, or as Julian irritably fires Peggy, only to be convinced moments later by the chorus that he should rehire her as the star of his show. Both Ms. Jones and Mr. Hanson are accomplished performers; neither really became the stage monsters they might be.

Mr. Mear, the music director Gareth Valentine and Mr. McKintosh keep the show zipping along. Scene changes are cleverly managed through the use of mobile scaffolding that serves as staircases, windows, balconies, train compartments (“Shuffle off to Buffalo”), dressing rooms and more.

The audience, visibly adoring every moment of the show, was not querying plot points or their delivery. The tap dancing was machine-gun precise, the singing was tuneful, the costumes were gorgeous. The kind of escape from reality that the movie provided during the Depression was on offer again, at another moment when an escape from reality might be welcome.

Correction: November 25, 2016

An earlier version of this article described incorrectly the status of “An American in Paris” on Broadway. The show has ended its Broadway run and is now on a national tour.

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