Far from emerging as another artificially spruced-up link in the retro-musical chain, Simon Callow’s arresting “The Pajama Game” is a fresh take on an enduring story and hit songs that have seen life out of context for an entire generation. The Birmingham Repertory Theater production pulses with unbridled pizzaz, and the 1954 script about a strike in a pajama factory is as relevant and snappy today as it was the day George Abbott and Richard Bissell wrote it.
Callow’s vision of bridging eras by avoiding a period setting or a classical delivery of the songs puts a contemporary spin on the piece without sacrificing its heart. As set designer, contemporary artist Frank Stella’s abstract style and remarkable sense of color ensures a sensuous palette . Matched to Christopher Woods’ snazzy period costumes, the effect is like watching a Stella painting come to life.
The musical arrangements by John Harle and Gary Carpenter, with Ian Gardiner and Dick Walter, are hip and snappy, with lush orchestrations from musical director Nick Barnard. The weak link in the creative chain is choreographer David Bintley, artistic director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Working with some of Bob Fosse’s original choreography, his approach is too lyrical and soft-edged.
Fosse’s signature “Steam Heat,” always a sure-fire winner, pulls off its magic here, although pop singer Alison Therese Limerick as Gladys needs more electronic support for a voice that is gloriously textured but weak for the musical theater genre. How much of this was her fault on opening night is not clear, as the sound was dreadful.
Some of the scene changes were also sloppy. Luckily Tim Mitchell’s creative, geometrically patterned lights worked well enough to demonstrate their stunning symmetry with Stella’s designs.
For the most part the company survived the glitches intact.
John Hegley, who plays timekeeper Vernon Hines, is a rubber-limbed comic well-known on the commercial fringes of London theater and the Edinburgh Festival; performing his first big stage role here, he proves himself a natural, with a spontaneous understanding of the burlesque aspects of the role.
If Callow had done nothing else, casting Hegley would be enough. But there’s also East Ender star Anita Dobson, whose “I’ll Never Be Jealous Again” in a duet with Hegley is a highlight of the show. And Graham Bickley as management’s Sid, who falls in love with unionist Babe (Ulrika Jonsson), is another powerful force on stage.
Bickley’s musical theater experience gives him an extra patina, particularly in “Hey There.” He and Jonsson also build a powerful chemistry; their sexual energy mostly succeeds in over-riding her inability to deliver the music but unfortunately, Jonssoncan’t fake it with the high notes of “There Once Was a Man” or the sweet solo “If You Win You Lose.”
Word has it that Jonsson is taking music lessons. In the meantime, when “The Pajama Game” hits Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre in mid-June, “Crazy for You’s” Camilla Scott is stepping into the role.
TheBritish cast, on the whole, does well with its accents. But there is a particular American sensibility that gives musicals of this era a certain kind of energy. It’s interpreted here as vivacity and a kind of music hall panache — close, but no cigar.
Yet on the whole Callow has done what he envisioned with “The Pajama Game” — demonstrating that old-fashioned book musicals have more than a history — with ideas and talent in the re-staging, they also have staying power.