Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Pipe Dream – London stage premiere [Union Theatre]

Pipe Dream
Musical comedy – score by Richard Rodgers to a book & lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II based on the novels Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck in an adaptation by David Ives

Doc – Kieran Brown
Suzy – Charlotte Scott
Fauna – Virge Gilchrist
Hazel – Nick Martland
Joe – John Hicks
Jim Blaikey – Shane Landers
George Herman – Joshua Lovell
Ray Busch – Matt Parsons
Eddie – Christopher Connor
Johnny – Mitchell Jarvis
Millicent – Michaela Cartmell
Agnes – Rebecca Fennelly
Mabel – Catherine Sagar
Marjorie – George Burdett
Emma – Alexandra Lloyd-Hamilton
Kitty – Clare Duffy

[Musicians not named]

Sasha Regan – Director
Lizzi Gee – Choreographer
Christopher Peake – Musical Director
Elle-Rose Hughes – Designer
Tim Deiling – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 4 August, 2013
Venue: Union Theatre, London

Pipe Dream (Union Theatre, August 2013)Everybody is allowed to fail. In spite of their enormous successes with Oklahoma!, Carousel, State Fair, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II enjoyed only moderate success with Flower Drum Song, Allegro, and Me and Juliet. Their shortest run was in 1955 for Pipe Dream, which notched up a mere 246 performances – unheard of for this partnership.

It must have seemed a good idea at the time. Cy Feuer and Ernie Martin had had success with Where’s Charley?, and Guys and Dolls, both with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser. They were interested in turning John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel Cannery Row into a musical, so the author suggested he write a sequel featuring some of its characters. This became Sweet Thursday. Feuer and Martin then approached Loesser to write the show but he was not available (he was already working on The Most Happy Fella) but then managed to interest Rodgers and Hammerstein, although the latter was a little troubled by some of the book’s themes – part of it takes place in a bordello. They also persuaded Helen Traubel, from the Metropolitan Opera, to take the part of Fauna, the madam of the house of ill-repute. The producers wanted Henry Fonda to play the part of Doc, a marine biologist, but although he took vocal lessons for six months he still couldn’t sing. The part went to Bill Johnson who had appeared in Annie Get Your Gun. Julie Andrews was sought as goodtime girl Suzy but she was already in training for My Fair Lady. Janet Leigh was also unavailable, so the part went to Judy Tyler who had impressed Rodgers on television.

Pipe Dream (Union Theatre, August 2013)Cannery Row is set in Monterey among the fishing community before World War Two, while Sweet Thursday takes place after it when the Doc returns after military service only to find many old friends have gone. The local cathouse is now run by the former owner’s sister, Fauna (as opposed to Flora), who manages the place more like a finishing school, instructing the girls in how to find a suitable (wealthy) husband. Doc’s friends try to pair him off with Suzy, the new girl in town. They have a brief fling. Suzy, disliking her chosen occupation, moves out of the brothel to live in an abandoned boiler. Although she cares for Doc, she leaves with the proviso that if he were ever in trouble she would return to look after him. Doc’s friends obligingly set up a situation that brings Suzy back and they go off into the sunset in their pursuit of marine life together. And that’s about it: plot-wise it’s small fry, particularly for Steinbeck.

Although the Union pulls out all the stops, it cannot disguise what is a rather twee exercise. Much of it is very hard to swallow despite some fine melodies from Rodgers and some suitably poetic lyrics from Hammerstein. The outstanding songs include ‘The man I used to be’, for Doc, ‘Everybody’s got a home but me’, for Suzy, ‘All at once you love her’ and ‘The next time it happens’ for them both, and ‘Sweet Thursday’, for Fauna. Some of the music is oddly reminiscent of South Pacific and Carousel. I don’t think Hammerstein’s book was strong enough to carry the songs and make it a successful show and why London has never seen Pipe Dream staged until now.

Sasha Regan’s nifty production – good movement, fine dancing, imaginative settings – fields some sassy performances, especially by Kieran Brown as Doc, Charlotte Scott as Suzy and Virge Gilchrist as Fauna, the latter looking not unlike a chilled-out version of Pats from Ab Fab. It’s good to see such a rarity revived, even if it fails to measure up to the rest of the output of one of the most successful of creative partnerships.

  • Pipe Dream is at the Union Theatre, 204 Union Street, Southwark, London SE1 until Saturday 31 August 2013
  • Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30 p.m., matinees Saturday & Sunday 2.30
  • Tickets on 0207 261 9876

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