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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Minerva Theatre, Chichester


  Hadley Fraser/ Ph: Catherine Ashmore

When in the early 50s the great Broadway writer/director George Abbott announced that his next project would be a musical set largely in a pajama factory in Dubuque, Ohio, about a dispute between the factory’s workforce and management over a seven and a half cent raise, the word up and down New York’s Shubert Alley was that Abbott had taken leave of his normally impeccable senses.

Not only was the subject matter – based on a novel by Richard Bissell, called "7 and a Half Cents" – decidedly unpromising, Abbott had engaged a pair of rookies to write the book and lyrics (Richard Adler and Jerry Ross) and an equally untested choreographer, Bon Fosse, to stage the dance numbers.

Well, far from the disaster predicted by cynical Broadway pundits, the show, which opened in 1954, received unanimously favourable reviews and ran for three years. While today it is something of a period piece – albeit a great piece from a great period of musical theatre – it still has the power to engage and captivate audiences of a certain age who still respond to a catchy, imperishable score and characters they can root for.

Richard Eyre’s energetic revival opens this year’s Chichester Festival, proving irrevocably that there’s no tune like a show tune for putting a grin on your face and sending you home sated and satisfied. Eyre has done a terrific job giving the show’s witty book (by Abbott and Bissell) its due and making the most of the clash-of-interest romance between factory superintendent Sid Sorokin (Hadley Fraser) and Union representative Babe Williams (Joanna Riding).

He’s ably abetted by choreographer Stephen Mear – surely the best in his field in Britain right now – who manages the unenviable task of recreating several dance routines, such as "Once-A-Year-Day" and "Steam Heat" without duplicating Fosse’s indelible take on these numbers, all of which can still be seen in the DVD version of the hugely entertaining 1957 film version that stars Doris Day as Babe Williams.

Both Eyre and Mears are well served by a hard-working cast that, occasionally, works just a bit too hard. For example, in "There Once Was a Man," one of the best songs in the show, Riding and Fraser are so eager to sell the number they indulge in what I can only describe as the vocal equivalent of face-pulling. The song is so good it just needs to be sung, not mugged. Still, Fraser does a nice job with "Hey There," the most familiar ballad in the score.

Peter Polycarpou, as time-and-motion man Hines, and Claire Machin as Mabel, his secretary, do splendidly with the delightful "I’ll Never Be Jealous Again." As Gladys (the role that made an overnight star of understudy Shirley MacLaine, who at short notice and without the benefit of rehearsal stepped in for an injured Carol Haney), Alexis Owen-Hobbs uses her gloriously long legs to wondrous effect, with solid support on hand from Colin Stinton, Eugene McCoy and Jenna Boyd.

Tim Hatley has devised an ingenious set that fits the intimate space of the Minerva like the proverbial glove, and while the nine-piece orchestra would definitely have benefitted from a string section, under the baton of Gareth Valentine they never sell the evergreen Adler-Ross score short.

So, yet another goodie from Chichester, destined no doubt, like Sweeney Todd, Kiss Me Kate and Singin’ in the Rain, for the West End.


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