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Toronto by Antonio Tan

The Pajama Game

When a major revival of The Pajama Game was announced back in February, the announcement was met with mixed reactions. The question of whether it would work for today's audiences was the main concern on people's minds, and there was good reason to worry. For one thing, The Pajama Game had never had a major commercial run on Broadway or London over the 40+ years since the original production, leaving the show's material untested with the ever-evolving tastes and values of the general theatregoing public. Is The Pajama Game too old-fashioned or too "fifties" for the nineties audience? It didn't seem to be at the June 24 North American Premiere of Simon Callow's rejuvenated juggernaut of a production. If anything, the production at The Princess of Wales Theatre almost felt like a musical about the 50s written in the 90s.

The Pajama Game was a major hit on Broadway in 1954 - it ran for 1063 performances at the St. James Theatre, making it the eighth show in Broadway history to surpass the 1000-performance mark, and it also won six Tony Awards including Best Musical. Director/choreographer Bob Fosse and actress Shirley MacLaine both got their career boosts from Pajama Game: Fosse won a Tony for choreographing, and MacLaine caught the eye of a film producer at a performance at which she understudied an indisposed Carol Haney.

This new adaptation of Pajama Game, directed by Britain's Simon Callow, opened at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in England on April 29, 1999 to somewhat mixed reviews (mainly because of its original star, Ulrikka Jonnson, who could not sing). The musical, about a wage dispute at the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory and the strain it puts on the relationship between Babe Williams, the head of the union grievance committee, and Sid Sorokin, the new plant superintendent, is absolute fun. Based on the novel 7½ Cents by Richard Bissell, the show was written by Broadway legend George Abbott and also Richard Bissell, with a catchy and memorable score by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross.

Callow, in reinterpreting the piece for the 21st century, enlisted the help of American abstract artist Frank Stella to spruce up the show. And indeed, thanks to an abstract and exuberantly colorful set, Pajama Game feels remarkably fresh and more contemporary, and feels like a suggestion of the 50s. New orchestrations by John Harle make the already savvy score more exciting, especially with the addition of electric guitars to make the sound a bit more raunchy, adding to the sexually-charged atmosphere of the production. The choreography, by David Bintley, is not showstopper material, and is largely forgettable. His take on "Steam Heat" was a butchery of the original showstopping number choreographed by Bob Fosse.

The lovely Camilla Scott (replacing Ulrikka Jonnson for the Toronto engagement) and Graham Bickley as Babe and Sid are a lively and compatible pairing, although Bickley's rather cold and unlikeable performance (reminiscent of the cynical character of Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd) lowers the voltage in their love match. Performance poet John Hegley as Vernon Hines, the time and motion study man, almost steals the show with his zany performance, complete with over-exaggerated gestures and line interpretations, while Brit pop star Alison Therese Limerick in the Carol Haney role of Gladys, raises the roof with her sky-shattering vocals.

The rest of the wacky all-British cast (with the exception of Scott, who is Canadian) go all-out with their performances as Iowa pajama factory workers, milking out the last laugh with their crazy over-the-top comic sensibilities with much success. (In one scene, I couldn't help but crack up as the main dialogue took place on one side of the stage, while on the other side of the stage, a rather large male ensemble member did leaps and pirouettes... think of Mad TV's Will Sasso doing ballet.) Supporting role standouts include Anita Dobson as Mabel Ellis, Karen Clegg as Poopsie, and Jonathan D. Ellis as Prez.

This refreshing revival of The Pajama Game, while wonderfully entertaining, does not have the right amount of 'steam heat' to make it a completely revitalizing evening at the theatre. But one thing's for sure: you'll leave the theatre humming the songs with a big grin on your face.

June 17 - July 24, 1999
North American Premiere: June 24, 1999
Tickets: Call TicketKing at (416) 872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333
At The Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King Street West, Toronto, Canada

-Antonio Tan

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