Sunday, June 22, 2014

14 years later...

Yep, for the first time since May 2000 I found myself sitting in the splendid auditorium of the Shaftesbury Theatre!  It's a nice place - although, for all it's much-vaunted renovation. the stalls seats were still a bit low to the ground and uncomfortable.

The last show I saw there was the flop LAUTREC and since then it has had the odd hit - HAIRSPRAY, ROCK OF (ugh) AGES - but it has also had an embarrassing history of duds: FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, FLASHDANCE, DADDY COOL, THE FAR PAVILIONS, BAT BOY, THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE, PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED, NAPOLEON...  oy.  At times the Variety wartime gag "In case of a bomb attack, seek shelter at the Nora Bayes Theatre as it's never had a hit" has been applicable to the Shaftesbury.

But there I was on Tuesday to see the Chichester Theatre's successful revival of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross' THE PAJAMA GAME.  Not a musical I am overly keen on but it had 5 star reviews and any musical directed by Richard Eyre must be seen as his production of GUYS AND DOLLS in 1982 at the National Theatre started me on a new life as an ardent theatregoer.

I think my anathema to the show is down to the woeful production by Simon Callow that played for 3 months at the Victoria Palace in 1999 with Leslie Ash, Graham Bickley, Anita Dobson and John Hegley.  It just lied there and died there, it's jolly but dated book's jokes landing with a thud about 3 rows from the orchestra pit.

Despite the several charms of this production I must again say that on the whole I am baffled at the acclaim.  George Abbot and (original source material writer) Richard Bissell's book is still dated while most of the score is fairly routine.  Luckily in 1954 it was still the era of show tunes being covered by pop acts so there are four big hits within the score - HEY THERE, ONCE-A-YEAR DAY, STEAM HEAT and HERNANDO'S HIDEAWAY.

Two of the lesser-known songs - THERE ONCE WAS A MAN and A NEW TOWN IS A BLUE TOWN - stand out from the others for a good reason, they were 'donated' to the show by Adler and Ross' mentor Frank Loesser.  What I found so lame about the book is that it sets up it's at-odds hero and heroine only to dismiss that and plunge straight into the love story with no reason other than it's 25 minutes in and time for them to fall in love.  The songs too also have a by-rote feel to them - opening ensemble number, hero solo, heroine solo, comedy number, hero love song, ensemble number etc.  True not every show can be GUYS AND DOLLS but it's also true that what was funny in 1954 isn't necessarily what's funny now.

It deserves snaps however for being a sympathetic show about Unions!  The Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory workers are threatening to strike as their tyrannical boss Hasler is refusing to give them a 7 1/2 cent pay rise that other factory workers are receiving.  Union rep Babe Williams has to negotiate not only with Halser but also with the over-zealous time & motion man Hines and the factory superintendent Sid Sorokin, newly arrived in the job and trying to stamp his authority on his mullish co-workers.  Babe and Sid of course fall in love but when she persists in leading her team in a go-slow he fires her.  Interval.

The second act is an exercise in treading water until the inevitable reuniting of Babe and Sid with the supporting characters getting a lot of attention namely Hines and Hasler's secretary Gladys, of whom he is obsessively jealous - the writers give him a previous job as a knife-thrower for no other reason than he can chuck a few blades about when roused.  Yeees.  There is also a further sub-plot between Sid's secretary Mabel and the Union boss Prez that hangs around going nowhere.

However what this production does have is Eyre's direction - in his enjoyable programme notes he explains that, when he was young, he became word perfect with the score because his sister had the London cast recording which she played constantly although he never saw it onstage until he finally directed this production.

The show also has Stephen Mear's energetic choreography which certainly make the dance numbers one of the show's successes and while his STEAM HEAT steps cannot equal the original, amazing Bob Fosse moves, they still make it a memorable set-piece that starts the second act on such a high.  I suspect Eyre's hand in the reprise of I'LL NEVER BE JEALOUS AGAIN in Hernando's Hideaway as it descended into a Latino riot which heavily echoed the 'low dive' from GUYS AND DOLLS - even down to the butch transvestite. 

Tim Hatley's set is rather pedestrian - although I liked the neon parrots in Hernado's Hideaway.  His costumes however evoke the period well.  Although it was a joy to hear the orchestra belting it out to the balcony, the sound was so off that at times they drowned out the performers.


Luckily the show's problem areas were kicked to touch by the perfomances of Joanna Riding and Michael Xavier.  Joanna Riding, a surprisingly unstarry musical leading lady, sings so well that it does make you realise that Babe could do with a few more songs.  It must be nice for her to be out front in a star role again after her thankless one-song-and-a-cough as Valerie Hobson in STEPHEN WARD.

No such problem for Michael Xavier who oddly has his two big numbers within minutes of each other but he delivered excellent renditions of A NEW TOWN IS A BLUE TOWN and HEY THERE.  Xavier radiates charisma and although there is a slight mis-match in their ages, he and Riding made a winning couple. I have not seen him since his Olivier-nominated turn in the Regent's Park INTO THE WOODS and I am sure another nomination will be his next year.

Gary Wilmot was an energetic Hines and made what is a rather dubious character interesting.  I also liked Colin Stinton as Hasler the sneaky boss man and Claire Machin certainly made the most of Mabel the secretary although the character would benefit from a rewrite.

The 1954 Broadway production is famous conversely for launching Shirley MacLaine's film career.  MacLaine was in the chorus and understudying Carol Haney who was a sensation as Gladys and in particular for STEAM HEAT.  A month after the opening, Haney broke her ankle and MacLaine, who was delayed getting to the theatre after dropping off her c.v. for another chorus job, arrived with minutes to spare to find directors George Abbott and Jerome Robbins, choreographer Fosse and producer Hal Prince anxiously waiting by the stage door.

Barely rehearsed she went on, dropped her bowler hat in STEAM HEAT - becoming the first person to say 'shit' on a Broadway stage - and was still playing the role when producer Hal Wallis saw the show.  He signed her to a film contract which led to her first film, Hitchcock's THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY.  Although winning a Tony Award and recreating her role in the THE PAJAMA GAME film, Haney developed stage fright so badly she switched to being a choreographer.  Sadly personal demons led to alcoholism and six weeks after choreographing Barbra Streisand in FUNNY GIRL she was dead aged 39 from pneumonia.  She is seen here in ONCE-A-YEAR DAY with MacLaine seen at the left. 

I mention this because, bizarrely, both times I have seen the show I have seen the understudy play Gladys!  This time Helen Ternent was on and although I suspect a huge Oscar-winning film career is not in the future, she certainly gave a nice performance and danced up a storm in STEAM HEAT.

In 1955, Adler and Ross' next musical DAMN YANKEES was just as successsful, again winning the Tony Award for Best Musical but tragically, Jerry Ross died six months after the opening from lung disease.  Adler never had another successful musical.

But in their musicals, there was always a happy ending...

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