Our first trip to Chichester of the year and the Festival theatre is currently a building site which will hopefully emerge Cher-like from the surgeon’s chair in 2014 refreshed, remodelled and ready to entertain us for another 50 years.
All of which means that the season’s first offering is directed by no less than Richard Eyre in the Festival theatre’s beautifully intimate little sister, the Minerva.
With songs by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (Damn Yankees) and book by George Abbot and Richard Bissell, based on Bissell’s novel 7½ cents, this was a 1954 Broadway smash and three years later a film starring Doris Day.
It also happens to be Mrs Front Row Dress’s joint favourite musical of all time (Oklahoma, since you asked).
After a light lunch and a bottle of pinot in the lovely conservatory at “Amelie and Friends” we amble across the car park in the watery spring sunshine to take up our seats in row D, noticing en passant that I am possibly the only member of the audience without grey hair, mainly thanks to for “Just for Men”.
Two time Olivier award winner Joanna Riding, looking every inch an ingénue half her age, is feisty Babe Williams, union rep at the Sleep Tite pajama factory, battling her bosses for a 7½ cents pay rise to bring them in line with the rest of the industry. Hadley Fraser’s newly appointed factory superintendent Sid Sorokin falls in love with her within the first ten minutes and they argue on and off for two hours before ending up wearing one pair of pajamas between them belting out the title song. The sight of Fraser’s manly chest causes Mrs Front Row Dress to have a giddy turn the likes of which she’s not experienced since 1990, when Tom Selleck blew a kiss in her general direction from the red carpet as we hunted for autographs at the premiere of Three Men and a Little Lady.
What lifts this show into a different league are the songs, which keep coming at you like the Hit Factory Live. Hey There You With The Stars In Your Eyes, This Is My Once-A-Year Day, Small Talk, Steam Heat, a riotous cocaine sniffing Hernando’s Hideaway, even the ones you haven’t heard before make you feel as if you’ve known them all your life. Claire Machin as wise cracking secretary Mabel and Peter Polycarpou as David Brent-esque time and motion man Vernon Hines bring down the house with I’ll Never Be Jealous Again, as Mabel advises Vernon on the best way to keep his girl.
Joanna Riding and Hadley Fraser are perfect as the battling pair, Benedick and Beatrice with tunes, believable and likeable and with pipes to die for. Despite the star wattage emerging from the two leads, what really gives this production its edge are the performances of the supporting cast. Along with Claire Machin and Peter Polycarpou, Alexis Owen-Hobbs as ditzy blonde Gladys and Eugene McCoy’s would-be seducer Prez threaten to steal every scene they are in. In fact the sheer joy emanating from the entire company makes me worry about their energy levels for the evening show following two hours later.
Richard Eyre and choreographer Stephen Mear have done a grand job. Their high octane staging never lets up and together with the punchy band led by musical director Gareth Valentine gives the good folk of sleepy Chichester an exciting shot in the arm.
With the success of Top Hat and Singin’ In The Rain proving that the West End still has an appetite for classic musicals, a move to the smoke must surely be a consideration.
Booking until 8 June 2013, sheer joy - The Pajama Game