I get a good feeling when I go by the Shaftesbury – it’s where I first saw Hairspray and where I laughed my head off at Rock of Ages. When I think of a big show done well, I imagine seeing it at The Shaftesbury. So when I got an invite to round out a group going to see The Pyjama Game early on I thought, why not? A thirty pound show at the Shaftesbury will probably be a screaming bargain. I could sort of remember watching the movie with my mom ages ago – Doris Day, right? – but couldn’t remember anything else about it other than it was some sort of 60s rom-com where the hero and heroine are at odds but make up by the end.
As it turns out, I found this show inexpressibly sad. Set in a sewing factory in 1950s America, the legions of reasonably paid workers represented a middle class that have been almost entirely wiped out. Union stewards who were smart and looked after theirs? Yeah, Catherine “Babe” Williams (Joanna Riding) is my kind of heroine, practically a Norma Rae in her unglamorous middle age (though nice legs) and dedication to her team. And shop buster Sid Sorokin (Michael Xavier)? He and boss man Myron Hasler (Colin Stinton) are villains, pure and simple, the people who in thirty years will fight to destroy the unions and send the work to Mexican maquiladores and then to China. The joke will be on Sorokin, though, as people like him won’t be needed, either, and the Sorokin will pocket the bucks as they slowly change the American dream from decent jobs producing decent goods to just making a buck.
Meanwhile, all of the folks singing about their pride and spirit in “Sleep-Tite” and their joy in socializing with their coworkers in “Once a Year Day?” You’re going to be reduced to working part time at WalMart and still needing welfare benefits and food stamps. Be beautiful in your petticoat dresses and cheer for what you can buy with your “7 1/2 Cents,” girls, because in thirty years your job, your shop, your union, and most likely the company you worked for will all be gone, because the government you live under has decided keeping jobs isn’t as important as making sure Old Man Hasler gets HIS money.
I found the first act slow and the “chemistry” between Williams and Sorokin both non-existent and implausible, their hook up at the end of the first act contaminated by its improbability in an age lacking good birth control methods. And when Babe said she didn’t know why she was so gung-ho about the union, I wanted to slap her. Stand up and say what counts, woman! You’re holding the line against all of these people losing their jobs and your whole town become a part of the rust belt! But no, Sid’s going to sing a sappy love song and you’re going to forget what really matters in life, and somehow hearing “Hey There (You With The Stars In Your Eyes)” is supposed to make us forget, too.
But we’re in a post industrial age, and watching a fine hoofer like Alexis Owen Hobbs burn her way through “Steam Heat” is a good distraction from crap like War Horse letting go its musicians to save a few pennies (these issues are still with us!). I perked up enough to laugh my way through the hysterical Hernando’s Hideaway, once again seduced by Hobbs’ professionalism – as a blonde, tap-dancing comedienne she was ticking my musical wishlists – but, well, the whole thing just didn’t work for me. It wasn’t happening, even in the second row. The first act needed tightening up, and, I don’t know, Sid isn’t someone I could buy Babe ever falling for. I left feeling down, even after the second act. Ah well, there’s the sizzling How to Succeed in Business on in Walthamstow and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on the Strand … you’ve been warned!
(This review is for a performance that took place on May 6th, 2014. It continues as long as it’s making money, which probably won’t be for nearly as long as ILGWU lasted in America, but at least the folks on stage have good union jobs and aren’t getting shafted like the musicians at the New London Theatre.)