‘Come along and listen to the lullaby of Broadway’ sing the talented hoofers down 42nd Street. Set on the famous New York street in the middle of Broadway, 42nd Street is not just a toe-tapping extravaganza packed full of hit numbers and dance routines. Long before NBC’s hit TV series Smash was ever thought of, this musical charts the progress of Pretty Lady – a ‘show within a show’ – from auditions to an out-of-town tryout in Philadelphia, and opening in New York. The story features producer Julian Marsh, down on his luck and desperate for another hit, leading lady Dorothy Brock, desperate for a comeback role and involved with the show’s ancient financial backer in order to secure that role, and young ingenue Peggy Sawyer who’s looking for her first break into musical theatre. UK Productions’ show is back on the road touring the UK, with a stellar cast of singer-actor-dancers.

The process of ‘putting it together’ (as Sondheim later wrote) has always fascinated musical theatre fans. From the intense audition process in A Chorus Line, to the transition from vaudeville to burlesque in Gypsy, theatre shows with plots actually based in theatres never cease to entertain and enthrall. First act number ‘Getting out of town’, as Julian Marsh’s company moves from New York to Philadelphia (and later back again), brought to mind Jerry Herman’s Mack and Mabel too. That show might be set in the movie world rather than in theatre, but it features the same optimism and company solidarity in its first act number ‘Big Time’.  This production of 42nd Street has more grit than I remembered too – leading man Dave Willetts plunges the depths of Julian Marsh’s character, revealing the inner desperation behind the sometimes hard-faced exterior, and eventually hinting at more than a professional interest in young Sawyer. Willetts gets to reprise the closing title number too, along with ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ and is in very good voice as ever. Marti Webb is well cast as past-her-prime Dorothy Brock, and scores early in the vocal stakes with ‘You’re getting to be a habit with me’. Brock is dismissive of her financial backer Abner Dillon (played with an ironic irascibility by Bruce Montague) but desperate for another chance in the limelight, and to be with her lover Pat Denning (Stephen Weller). When injury forces her out of the show, Marsh cancels Pretty Lady mid-performance – a novel way to take the audience into the interval.

42nd Street also harks back to the days when a show’s writers would be working on the show, shoe-horning in an extra four numbers as they go along, and sometimes actually appearing in the show itself – set in the 1930s it just about predates the real-life story of fabled Broadway lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green who wrote and occasionally starred in a host of Broadway musicals in the 1940s and 1950s.  Pretty Lady writers Maggie Jones and Bert Barry are played here by Carol Ball and Graham Hoadly, both clearly in their element, especially in ‘Shuffle off to Buffalo’ with the female chorus.  And it also harks back to the days – oh, for those days! – before TV ‘talent’ contests decided who would take on leading musical roles, when lead roles were given to the most talented person for the job. How times have changed. Here, with the threat of a show cancellation, the chorus boys and girls, led by the sassy Anytime Annie (Rebecca Marks) show complete solidarity in their attempt to persuade Marsh to save the show by asking Peggy Sawyer to learn the lead in just 2 days. Will Sawyer pull through and save the day – and what will Brock have to say about it? You’ll have to see the show to find out.

For anyone who loves musical theatre, showbusiness or dance, 42nd Street really is a must. Pretty Lady’s leading male dancer Billy Lawlor is in safe hands in James O’Connell, and it’s no surprise to see Jessica Punch back on tour as Peggy Sawyer as she is the most fluent and swift-footed dancer of them all. There really is something quite thrilling about watching a company of young dancers performing a tap number in complete syncopation too. ‘We’re in the money’ at the end of Act 1 is a real highlight (complete with large-scale cents!), as is the title number ‘42nd Street’ and finale at the end of the show. But the scenes in between, and more tender moments (such as Sawyer and Brock’s duet ‘About a Quarter to Nine’) ensure that the story is told fluently, and with panache. 42nd Street is still pure showbusiness at its core – as Marsh says to Sawyer, ‘You’re going out there a nobody, but you gotta come back a STAR!!!’ That’s showbiz, kid.