42nd Street

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, Saturday November 26 2016

Conductor: Gareth Valentine. Production and choreography: Stephen Mear. Sets and costumes: Peter McKintosh. Lighting: Chris Davey. Julian Marsh: Alexander Hanson. Dorothy Brock: Ria Jones. Peggy Sawyer: Monique Young. Billy Lawlor: Dan Burton. Maggie Jones: Jennie Dale. Bert Barry: Carl Sanderson. Ann Reilly: Emma Kate Nelson. Andy Lee: Stephane Anelli. Pat Denning: Matthew McKenna. Abner Dillon: Teddy Kempner. Phyllis Dale: Chantel Bellew. Lorraine Flemming: Charlie Allen. Diane Lorimer: Emily Goodenough. Ethel: Jessica Keable. Oscar: Barnaby Thompson. Mac, Doctor, Thug 1: Scott Emerson. Châtelet Orchestra.

Ruby Keeler in 1933
The Châtelet’s “Christmas” show and director Jean-Luc Choplin’s parting shot before he quits the job and the house shuts for renovation, is 42nd Street. For those who don’t know it, 42nd Street is an unashamedly escapist patchwork of numbers from various depression-era film musicals involving choreographer Busby Berkeley. The thinnest of backstage plots serves as the pretext for a series of lavish song-and-dance set pieces. Wikipedia’s article quotes theatre historian John Kenrick as writing: "When the curtain slowly rose to reveal forty pairs of tap-dancing feet, the star-studded opening night audience at the Winter Garden cheered... Champion” (i.e. Gower Champion, director of the 1980 Broadway production, who died on the day of the opening) “followed this number with a series of tap-infused extravaganzas larger and more polished than anything Broadway really had in the 1930s." So it might almost be seen as a demonstration piece – a virtuoso showbiz showcase.

Broadway professionalism doesn’t always make it across the Atlantic to France. In this case, it only had to make it across the Channel, as nearly everyone involved was from the UK, affirming that London’s reputation for the staging of musicals is fully deserved. I had no idea: the last time I went to a musical in London was in the 70s. It was A Chorus Line and I hated it. 42nd Street is a different kettle of fish (no droopy, self-obsessed, whining, whinging monologues – mostly just corny wisecracks and the-show-must-go-on clichés) and I loved it. The professionalism of this new staging is phenomenal through number after number of fast, precision-engineered dances with plenty of references back to the 30s but in a slicker, fleeter contemporary style. “A welcome contrast with so much ineptness on the opera stage,” wrote a friend a day or two later. I’ve often had the same thought in New York, comparing musicals with the Met.

The highly-coloured production (lots of red, green and purple) keeps the applause-seeking forty pairs of tap-dancing feet at the start, and nods, at the end, to the finale of the 1933 film with a spectacular tunnel arch of skyscrapers pointing down to the stage, with parts outlined in red lights. The basic set is an all-purpose arrangement of red-painted gantries with the brick backstage wall at the rear. These convert smoothly and seamlessly into the various spaces needed: a night club and its tiers of booths, a railway station with benches, etc. Props or sets-within sets, such as the star-of-the-show’s wallpapered dressing-room or the Buffalo-bound sleeping car, are wheeled efficiently on and off, or art-deco light fittings are lowered and raised.

The superb costumes, make-up and marcelled wigs are in period (i.e. around 1933) and the Berkeley-inspired set pieces do nothing to avoid Kitsch – e.g. giant flowers bobbing around on heads or an outlandishly extravagant, all-white fashion parade. The lighting is often nostalgically golden.

The cast was all smiles and cheeky charm, looking as if every minute of frenzied hoofing while singing - presumably gruelling, especially on Saturday evening after a matinee - was huge fun and an absolute doddle. It’s impossible to single out individual principals for praise as they were all so damned good. This was just a great evening out and an escape from grim everyday reality (Trump as president-elect, French elections gearing up, Christmas looming only four weeks away…) that sent people home humming and with a smile on their faces.

Many of the best things I saw in the 90s and “noughties” (Die Frau, Vixen, Les Paladins, Belle Hélène, Grande Duchesse…) were at the Châtelet. Then, when Choplin decided the programming should be more “eclectic,” I stopped subscribing and only bought specific shows, like this one. I wonder what sort of programming will be on offer when the theatre opens again, with a new director, in 2019…

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