The Pajama Game
nytheatre.com review by David DelGrosso
February 24, 2006
Director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall’s excellent revival of The Pajama Game is an unapologetically enthusiastic and entertaining production. I suppose I should not have been surprised by the straightforward approach, but at a time when the American musical has become increasingly self-aware and ironic, I am glad this revival chooses to enjoy this vintage 1954 musical rather than send it up. And what would be gained by poking holes in an easy target? Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’s score contains memorable songs and dance numbers, but the book, by George Abbott and Richard Bissell, based on Bissell’s novel 7 ½ Cents is light fare. As a workplace romantic comedy set in a pajama factory in which lovers are briefly star-crossed by a labor dispute over a 7 ½ cent raise, The Pajama Game never aspires to be anything more revelatory than a great night’s entertainment. And this production—infused with star power and supported by the solid craft of comedic character actors—delivers just that.
Enjoying this production is also largely due to the theatrical stage debut of Harry Connick, Jr. in the lead role of Sid Sorokin. Back in the 1950s when this musical premiered, crooners could cherry pick a standard like “Hey There” and give it a life of its own as popular music, leaving the context of the musical behind. So it seems a proper payback for a pop star like Connick, with 20 million record sales to his name, to come and perform the whole role. Drawing on his experience with genres of music both close and distant from the Adler & Ross score, Connick brings a wonderful mix of a crooner's craft and a jazz singer’s playfulness. His solo performances of “Hey There” and “A New Town Is a Blue Town” have a soulful intimacy that makes you feel like you’ve been invited to a concert at a small venue, while his barnstorming duet of “There Once Was a Man”, with co-star Kelli O’Hara, is so loose and fun as to seem against the rules. There is even a point during one of the show’s bigger numbers, “Hernando’s Hideaway,” in which a piano appears, as if summoned by the collective will of the audience, allowing Connick to lead the orchestra in bringing the song home. While it may have been a stretch for the character of Sorokin—even in the world of singing and dancing factory workers—my reaction was, “Why not?”
The production has other assets as well. The Pajama Game is somewhat unusual as it has not one but two comedic couple subplots. So many antics could easily overshadow the romantic main plot, but fortunately this production fills these roles with performers who have very distinct comedic styles. As the tightly wound efficiency expert Hines, Michael McKean cannot get past his jealousy to trust his on-again/off-again girlfriend, the boss’s secretary Gladys. McKean, best known from mockumentaries like This Is Spinal Tap and Best in Show, here has been given some of the weakest musical numbers in the show and a character who—as written—could come off as creepy and dangerous. But the same bottomless sincerity that McKean brings to his film roles serves him well here and makes this character endearing as a harmless eccentric.
Megan Lawrence, as Gladys, calls to mind a young Lucille Ball. She is also given a chance to shine in her drunken, lusty advances towards Connick’s superintendent. As the nerds who were born for each other, Peter Benson and Joyce Chittick are clowns who are also amongst the most talented dancers in the show, allowing them to create very large and precise bits of physical comedy. Commenting on all this from the sidelines is Roz Ryan as Mabel, the other secretary who has seen it all before. Mining big laughs out of a small part, Ryan’s expert comic timing lands every aside with deadly accuracy.
Director-choreographer Marshall ties all of this romance and comedy together with a consistent storytelling voice, showing the value of having such a multitalented auteur at the helm. The rest of the behind-the-scenes team keeps things light and bright, with the exception of a too oppressive set by Derek McLane. His smaller moving pieces are in keeping with the technicolor tone of the story, but they are overshadowed by a gray steel monster that looks more like a prison camp than a pajama factory. This set frames the whole stage picture from beginning to end and looks very out of place in the picnic number “Once-a-Year-Day.”
My companion at the performance says that Harry Connick Jr. with his shirt off would have been worth the price of admission for her, but fortunately there is more going for this production than its beefcake ending. It is a revival that aims to please and does so with energy and style to spare.