The Pajama Game continues at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London until 13 September.
There was a little bit of musical chairs going on in the casting department last week at The Pajama Game. While the evening was all about actor Gary Wilmot taking over the role of Vernon Hines (the Sleep-Tite pajama factory’s time and motion man) – following on from Peter Polycarpou – there was also an unexpected surprise in that leading man Michael Xavier was off due to illness. In his place was understudy Dan Burton who also covered the role in Chichester where the production had its premiere in May 2013.
The Pajama Game has already received a stream of positive reviews and now I know why. Despite some tiny gripes (the sound balance was a bit off on the night in question), Richard Eyre’s interpretation is a joy from start to finish. It’s pretty well known now that the show was the first musical that Eyre heard when he was a young boy, yet he had never seen a production of it until this opportunity came along.
The result is that Eyre demonstrates a respect for the quality of the piece – its show-stopping score (Richard Adler and Jerry Ross) and witty libretto (George Abbott and Richard Bissell) – and the 1950s period in which it was written, while also giving it a rather modern and fresh interpretation.
He is also helped by the wonderfully fluid work of Stephen Mear. Though he tips his hat to the show’s original choreographer Bob Fosse, Mear gives the movement a style of his own, always allowing the storytelling to continue throughout. Little touches such as the baseball mime during the number ‘There Once Was a Man’ are a delight.
However, this particular evening was all about Wilmot as Hines, a character who shares his time between overseeing every second of the factory workers’ day and spying on his girlfriend Gladys (the vivacious, multi-talented Alexis Owen-Hobbs). The actor and the role make a perfect fit and Wilmot never falls into the trap of exaggerating the humour – his timing and balance are just right. ‘I’ll Never Be Jealous Again’, his number with big boss Hasler’s secretary Mabel (Claire Machin’s performance is a comic tour de force), is a masterclass in how to play musical comedy. Someone coming along to see the show for the first time would have no inkling that Wilmot has only officially been part of the company since 2 June.
It was, of course, disappointing not to see Michael Xavier in the lead role of new factory superintendent Sid (an excuse perhaps to pay the show another visit), but Dan Burton – who normally plays the role of Earl – coped splendidly. A tentative start soon passed as the actor and singer got into his stride, and there was a tenderness and electricity in his budding relationship with head of the factory grievance committee Babe Williams (Joanna Riding).
Riding never fails to give her all to a role and this occasion isn’t any different. From heartbreak to happiness (accompanied by an eye-catching smile), there is truth in everything she portrays.
There is always room for revivals and new work to sit alongside each other in the world of musical theatre, especially if the former are as feelgood as this one.
The Pajama Game – listen to Xavier and Riding in action – News