BWW Review: THE PAJAMA GAME at Opéra De Rennes
After the concert version of West Side Story and an extensive tour of the musical Bells Are Ringing, director Jean Lacornerie and musical director Gérard Lecointe have chosen to collaborate again, delivering to the French public a comparatively little known musical of the 50s, The Pajama Game, which, outside being the work of the dream team Jerome Robbins directing, George Abbott writing the book, and Bob Fosse choreographing on Broadway for the very first time, stands as perhaps the only musical dealing with unions and labor conflicts. The least we can say is that this choice couldn't be more on point given the political context of France today, with major strikes going on in sync with the show, which began its run at Théâtre de la Croix-Rousse in Lyon, followed by an extensive tour at the Théâtre de la Renaissance, also in the Lyon area, and now for a three-day run at the gorgeous Opéra de Rennes, where I caught a sold out performance on February 1st.
Funny how the French audiences, especially in the provinces, are very much unused to musical theater. Witness the lack of applause at the end of the musical numbers, which the few connoisseurs, myself included, had to instigate!
I must admit that putting the dialogue in French while keeping the songs in English creates an additional and unnecessary gap between the narrative and the musical numbers, yet it's good to have preserved the original language for the glorious score by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, containing so many unknown gems such as "A New Town Is a Blue Town", impeccably delivered by Vincent Heden (the show's biggest hit songs, "Hey There", Steam Heat", and "Hernando's Hideaway" have all reached the status of standards in the American songbook).
The fact that the book is translated in French by Jean Lacornerie himself helps it reach a wider audience, especially outside Paris, where so many Brits are crossing the channel to see Funny Girl! Of course, the social aspect of the piece is definitely speaking to the French audience right now even though it is conveyed through song and dance. In the "Steam Heat", Fosse's trademark bowler hats have been replaced with armbands, which were also distributed to the audience in what might appear to be a gesture of solidarity if you didn't know that audience participation is now a frequently used device in France.
My biggest issue is, however, the fact that the score is crying out for jazz dancing, not necessarily Fosse-style. However creative he may be, choreographer Raphaël Cottin has given us contemporary dance, which doesn't always fit the bill and can be frustrating, especially with musical director Gérard Lecointe reprising some of the jazzy arrangements of the Harry Connick, Jr. revival, which on Broadway gave way to an extended show-stopping dance number. Same for "I'll Never Be Jealous Again", which here doesn't lead on to even a decent soft shoe - not to speak of the "Steam Heat" choreography, nor of that "Once a Year Day", which is abruptly cut shore.
Aside from the inappropriate choreography, the other questionable characteristic of this production are the costumes by Marion Benagès. The unattractive one-piece multicolored pajamas and translucid shoes, which almost erase the gender and class differences that are basically the theme of the show. Separated tops and bottoms, as seen in the poster of 1957 movie-version directed by Stanley Donen and starring the late great Doris Day, were definitely sexier.
On the other hand, the lighting design by David Debrinay is most effective, especially in the "Hernando's Hideaway" bit. Jean Lacornerie is also a very knowledgeable director of musical theater, having experience with Lady in the Dark and The Three-Penny Opera, and his staging of the actor-musicians really works wonders, rarely the case with dance-oriented musicals. Gérard Lecointe's musicals arrangements are also very creative and sound wonderful.
But the best of this productions is unarguably its outstanding cast, with a very appealing Vincent Heden as Sid the superintendent (also playing the accordion) and the mischievous Dalia Constantin as Babe the union representative (saxophone). Their romantic attraction is quite believable and their chemistry obvious, which turn all the duets, particularly the country flavored "There Once Was a Man", into show stoppers. The supporting cast is no less great, with the super talented Amélie Menier as Gladys (playing saxophone as well); too bad that she cannot show off her dancing abilities quite enough here. Zacharie Saal is also wonderful as Hines (saxophone again), as are Pierre Lecomte as Charlie (clarinet) and Alexis Mériaux as Prez (trumpet). The girls Marianne Devos as Branda (violin), Marie Glorieux as Poopsie (flute), and Mathilde Lemonnier as Mae (viola) also shine as foils to Babe in "I'm Not At All In Love."
This innovative production with its uber-talented cast will go on touring, next stop Macon from February 21st, followed by Saint Nazaire from April 1st. Lets hope it will tour again next year and maybe come to Paris, as such well-sung and acted musicals are few and far between, excepting those at Théâtre Mogador and Théatre Marigny.