Union Theatre – The Pajama Game

The Pajama Game

Musical-comedy with words and music by Richard Adler & Jerry Ross with book by George Abbot & Richard Bissell, based on Bissell’s novel “7½ Cents”

Katherine ‘Babe’ Williams – Stephanie Nielson
Sid Sorokin – Graham Weaver
Gladys Hotchkiss – Gillian McCafferty
Vernon Hines – Billy Boyle
Myron Hasler – Anthony Wise
Mabel – Susan Travers
Charlie – Nicholas Cass-Beggs
Mae – Nicola Gossip
Prez – Sean Pól McGreevy
Poopsie – Maria Lawson
Stewie – Chris Love
Sarah – Victoria McKenzie
Carmen – Mirain Haf Roberts
Virginia – Kate Robson-Stuart

The Band
Magnus Gilliam – Piano / Musical Director
Rob Archibald – Saxophone & Flute / Assistant Musical Director
Kate Robson-Stuart – Violin
Maria Lawson- Clarinet
Sean Pól McGreevy – Piano & Percussion / Musical Director

Sasha Regan – Producer
Tom Southerland – Director
Sally Brooks – Choreographer
Chris Love – Assistant Choreographer
Steve Miller – Lighting Designer
Emma Devonald – Set & Costume Designer
Elizabeth Mansfield – Lighting & Sound Operator

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 18 April, 2008
Venue: Union Theatre, Southwark, London SE1

The music and writing team of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross lasted for no more than six years in the early 1950s, due to the untimely death of Jerry Ross in 1955, age 29. Protégés of Frank (“Guys and Dolls”) Loesser, they collaborated on a number of popular songs, their first hit being ‘Rags to riches’ in 1953 for Tony Bennett and David Whitfield. Later on Sunny and the Sunliners and Elvis Presley also recorded it, and the song is currently enjoying a new lease of life in a television commercial. Adler and Ross wrote just three shows together. The first was the 1953 revue “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac” with Harry Belafonte, Polly Bergen, Hermione Gingold and Billy De Wolfe. It was not a great success (229 performances) but it did introduce two new Broadway writing talents whose two other shows together have proved to be classics of their kind.

“The Pajama Game” and “Damn Yankees” have lasted because many of the songs Adler and Ross wrote for them also became standard, Award-winning and hit-parade material. From “Damn Yankees” came ‘(You gotta have) Heart’ and ‘Whatever Lola wants (Lola gets)’, while “The pajama game” gave us ‘Hey there (you with the stars in your eyes)’, ‘Steam heat’, ‘Hernando’s hideaway’, ‘Small talk’, ‘Once a year day’ and ‘I’m not at all in love’, to name just a few. Both shows became successful films, the latter in 1957 with Doris Day playing Babe Williams.

The initial Broadway production starring Janis Paige, John Raitt, Carol Haney and Eddie Foy Jr. ran for over a thousand performances. In London it ran for half that number with Joy Nichols, Edmund Hockridge, Elizabeth Seal and Max Wall. The Broadway staging was notable for introducing Shirley MacLaine to success when, a month into the run, dancer Carol Haney broke her ankle. Shirley came out of the chorus, took over and was spotted by film producer Hal Wallis, since when she never looked back on her way to Hollywood. “The Pajama Game” also introduced choreographer Bob Fosse to Broadway and he went on to work with Adler and Ross on “Damn Yankees”.

There have been successful US revivals of ‘The Pajama Game’ but the last London production at the Victoria Palace (via Birmingham and Toronto) in 1999 was a disappointment. Ulrika Jonsson dropped out and was replaced by Leslie Ash. Comedian and poet John Hegley appeared miscast as Hines. The staging by Simon Callow was criticised, while David Bintley’s choreography was no page out of Bob Fosse’s dance book. And history repeated itself when the second female lead dropped out on opening night.

Happily, the Union Theatre’s presentation, on a very much reduced scale, succeeds where Callow’s failed. This tiny fringe-theatre underneath a railway arch down Waterloo way, a few stones’ throw from the Young Vic, is used to staging pocket-versions of big shows and often does them better than the West End and includes excellent showings of “Cabaret”, “HMS Pinafore” and “Annie get your gun”. “The Pajama Game” is another rung on the Union Theatre’s ladder to fame, although, true to the show’s historic form, the leading lady caught influenza and missed opening night.

“The Pajama Game” is good as a musical-comedy because it is packed with songs and there’s not too much book to bother us. Adapted from Richard Bissell’s novel about a union dispute in the Sleep Tite pajama factory by the author himself and old Broadway hand George Abbot, it covers more the comedic aspects and love interest of the story rather than being a hard-hitting study of labour relations and company management. Sid Sorokin, a new superintendent at the factory stands his ground over the workers’ wage-claim for an extra seven-and-a-half-cents an hour when the boss demands increased output. Babe Williams, head of the union grievance committee, tries to face down the opposition but instead falls in love with Sid. The show goes on to portray their deteriorating working relationship and then their eventual romantic rapprochement.

It may sound corny now but in the 1950s it was hot, realistic stuff. Anyway, it is packed with comedy shtick between the workers and their various relationships, in particular that of time-motion study man Hines and his would-be girlfriend Gladys, who he feels he cannot trust, which leads to one of the best although least known of the show’s numbers, ‘I’ll never be jealous again’. If the attraction between Sid and Babe seems to happen too quickly, well, that’s musical-comedy for you, but Graham Weaver as Sid and Stephanie Nielson (who took over the role on press night from an indisposed Kate Nelson) make the relationship real enough.Director Thom Southerland and choreographer Sally Brooks keep things on the move in a Fosse dance-style that gives the show a great lift. They even manage to create the different settings of factory floor, office, night-club and an al fresco picnic with both ease and conviction and the skilled use of just a few props. In this tiny space they are all kept literally on their toes in some very spirited dancing in such production numbers as ‘Once a year day’, ‘Steam heat’ and ‘Hernando’s hideaway’ that are executed with immense joy and panache.

It’s a very good ensemble with some doubling up of roles, while even some of the musicians get to role-play. Stephanie Nielson as Babe conveys well the strong female union leader with a soft-centre for her boss. Gillian McCafferty as Gladys is a funny lady with a good instinct for comedy. Billy Boyle as her time-motion boyfriend is a seasoned pro at musical comedy and gives a selfless performance as the frustrated Hines. Susan Travers contributes a nice supporting role of Sid’s secretary Mabel while Anthony Wise blusters to good effect as boss-man Hasler. As Sid, the new superintendent, Graham Weaver exhibits great confidence in the material and gives a star performance that never wanes despite his having the audience virtually and constantly around him.

Britain’s got talent? Yes, it certainly has and it’s alive and well and performing in Southwark.

  • The Pajama Game is at the Union Theatre, Union Street, London, SE1 until Saturday 10 May: Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30 p.m., matinees on Saturdays, 3 & 10 May at 3 p.m.
  • Tickets on 020 7261 9876
  • Union Theatre

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