It’s very difficult improving on perfection, but the impossible is happening right now at Drury Lane, where, at her press night, the poly-talented Bonnie Langford raised the theatre’s venerable old roof as she purloined the leading role of temperamental diva Dorothy Brock in 42nd Street, superseding her predecessors on every level, including Sheena Easton, who headlined this joyous revival when it opened in April last year.
Forty-six years have passed since an eight-year-old Bonnie first appeared at Drury Lane playing her namesake in the 1972 musical adaptation of Gone With the Wind. She has since graced the original West End casts of Cats, Me and My Girl and Gypsy (with Angela Lansbury) and was terrific as Charity in the 1998 revival of Sweet Charity.
There is nothing this versatile performer cannot do, and although, as part of the plot, the role of Dorothy Brock does not require her to dance, Randy Skinner, working from the original Gower Champion template, has choreographed a curtain call for her in which she joins the company’s miraculous chorus line and hoofs up a mini whirlwind. It’s a brilliant idea and gives audiences – albeit briefly – a chance to see just how adept a dancer she still is.
Mainly, though, it’s her vocal talents that are put to the test in this infectiously feel-good musical, and her compelling delivery of such popular 1930s standards as "I Only Have Eyes for You," "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and "About a Quarter to Nine" elevate proceedings to a new level. Her performance is so convincing, you forget that Brock, who appears only once in the second half, is actually quite subsidiary to the ingénue, Peggy Sawyer, who replaces her when she breaks an ankle, and overnight becomes a star. Langford somehow manages to enlarge the role, and for the first time this revival justifies the character’s star billing.
The rest of the featured performers include Clare Halse, who, as the out-of-town would-be chorus girl trying her luck on Broadway, sings as well as she dances. You root for her all her way. Ashley Day as her personable leading man is pretty nifty on his feet as well as vocally accomplished. Tom Lister brings authority to the role of director Julian Marsh, and for comic relief, Jasna Ivir and Christopher Howell as the show’s composer and lyricist have the requisite pizzazz.
In the end, though, what makes 42nd Street the best musical in London by a mega-mile is the stunning 50-strong chorus line assembled by Skinner and director Mark Bramble. Working with an incomparable score by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, the energy they burn as one great production number follows another is thrillingly, exhaustingly exuberant.
The book by Bramble and co-author Michael Stewart retains the oomph and raciness of the original 1933 film on which it is based, at the same time imparting to it a freshness that belies its age. And with Langford giving her all, one’s cup of bliss runneth over.