Tuesday 30 April 2013

The Pajama Game

Chichester Festival Theatre

Music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross
Book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell
Directed by Richard Eyre

The Chichester Festival Theatre has a grand track record in producing five star musicals. With Sweeney Todd and Singing In The Rain having recently enjoyed successful transfers to the West End, the  expectations for Richard Eyre’s The Pajama Game, run high indeed. Sadly however, the press night reports of this show’s excellence turn out to have been great exaggerations.

Eyre established his credentials as a musical theatre director with Guys and Dolls at the National Theatre in 1982. That inspired vision, matched with a creative team to die for, stunned London. Whilst The Pajama Game does not sit as high in the musical theatre canon as the Frank Loesser epic, it offered Eyre similar potential that has frankly been squandered in what at times seems to be little more than an odd tribute to his Guys and Dolls triumph. There is scene-setting neon, a big Latin dance number, the lampooning of American culture and Eyre has even gone so far as to hire his Sarah Brown from the 1996 revival, Joanna Riding, who when she leans back in the arms of Hadley Fraser, still shows that elegantly profiled poise of the sergeant from the Save A Soul mission.

But this is The Pajama Game, a moderately corny piece albeit with its heart in the right place, that against a backdrop of conflict between unionised pyjama workers and their corrupt employer creates an unlikely love story between factory superintendent and the boss’ right hand man, Sorokin (played by Fraser) and his adversary, the union rep Babe Williams (Joanna Riding's role).

Pippa Ailion who cast the show has a lot to answer for. Whilst Riding looks downright gorgeous for her age and her singing and movement are perfect, she is by some years Fraser’s senior. The chemistry betwixt these two thus seems at best improbable and at worst, forced. The other minor love interest of the show is between factory time keeper Hines and office secretary Gladys. Peter Polycarpou’s Hines is a scene stealer. This outstanding actor’s voice and timing are perfect and the farcical moment when his trousers fall down is eye-wateringly funny. Alexis Owen-Hobbs however, who plays the glamorous Gladys, (un)fortunately looks young enough to be his daughter. This is a credit to her beauty, matched also by her talent, but it does nonetheless provoke disbelief that a young woman could date such a visibly older guy. Hadley Fraser’s voice is dreamy and his delivery of Hey There (You With The Stars In Your Eyes) is a spine tingling rendition of the classic, but whilst he sure can sing, his acting on the night seems flat. The final failing of the show is the choreography. The big dance number of Hernando’s Hideaway seemed at best sloppy and un-drilled and the act two opener, Steam Heat, with Gladys and two factory men, evolves into a slick tap routine that is brilliantly performed but needs a lot more of the company tap dancing on stage to fully achieve the song’s spectacular potential. In an age that has just witnessed a revival of Irving Berlin's Top Hat, to have just three people tap-dancing smacks of micro-budgetted constraint that can surely not be the case at Chichester?

Eugene McCoy’s Prez and Jenna Boyd’s Mae are excellent in support and creatively Tim Hatley’s design, Jack Galloway’s costumes and Linda McKnight’s wig work all add perfectly to establishing the show’s location and period. Credit too to Gareth Valentine’s band who provide a beautiful sounding and perfectly balanced backing to the show.

There is talk of The Pajama Game following that now well-worn path up the A3 to a London transfer. That would be inhumane. This production, as it stands, should be allowed to gracefully see out its days amongst the retirement homes of England’s South Coast. It’s a touch more pants than pajamas.

Runs to June 8 2013

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