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The Pajama Game

Not at all in love? Karen Ziemba and co-workers in The Pajama Game
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
If The Pajama Game were being considered today for adaptation into a musical from Richard Bissell's novel 7½ Cents, it might never happen. What with the description of the seamstresses as "flibbertigibbets" and the leering down the fronts of dresses and the married men grousing to girls about how their wives don't understand them and the annual office picnic hijinks, the depiction of sex in the workplace might look and feel too much like harassment. Nervous producers could decide to forget the whole thing.

All the more reason to be happy that Bissell and George Abbott transformed the narrative about a management-labor dispute at a pajama factory into a breezy tuner in 1954 and that, as a belated result the Encores! series can make it the winning 2002 season finale it now is. And all the more reason to be happy that lyricist Jerry Ross and composer Richard Adler, both in their 20s, were signed on to write a score that doesn't have a clinker in it. Quite the opposite: The Pajama Game runneth over with infectious ballads and comedy numbers--so much so that, shortly after the show opened, at least two of its songs ("Hey, There" and "Hernando's Hideaway") were vying to top the Hit Parade. Bissell's novel, which appeared at a time when unions riveted national attention more than they currently do, may have been intended to have its amusing aspects, but the author surely had some serious thoughts on his mind about how American workers are treated. As a man who toiled in the family pajama business, he had to have known the figurative and literal territory. (The action is set in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.) Undoubtedly, Bissell had convictions about the motives of both management and labor, and likely he had come to be annoyed that union supporters all too often ran the risk of being labeled troublemakers. After all, the House Un-American Activities Committee was still going about its ominous business at the time.

But when Bissell and Abbott teamed up, they must have determined early on to keep the enterprise light and bright. After all, Clifford Odets' Waiting for Lefty had already covered much of the same ground. So although there is a higher-up, appropriately named Hasler, who goes around shouting "Communists" in The Pajama Game, he's merely a figure of fun. The spotlight is kept on the clock-punchers' dalliances and love affairs. The focal couple consists of Sid Sorokin (Brent Barrett on this joyful occasion), who's been hired to keep the shift-slaves in line, and Babe Williams (Karen Ziemba), Sleep Tite Pajamas' one-woman grievance committee. The second bananas are time-study man Vernon Hines (Mark Linn-Baker) and the object of his affection, Gladys (Deidre Goodwin), who significantly carries the key to the company ledgers on a string around her neck. Another quick-to-get-hot-under-the-collar worker is Prez (Daniel Jenkins), ready to bed anything in a skirt.

Abbott, who also directed the original production, was, of course, a stage magician. With Bissell, he figured out a way to tell this relatively simple tale in only as long as it took to get from one rambunctious number to the next. For the Encores! concert treatment, David Ives is listed as having done the adaptation, but though he may have nipped and tucked here and there, he didn't have to trim very much from the fleet book that Abbott and Bissell carpentered. The first-act curtain comes down when Sid, who has fallen in love with Babe faster than you can say "hey, there," has to fire her for an act of worker insubordination. During the second act, Sid and Babe are estranged, but not so much as to cause genuine despair. After some dishonest bookkeeping is brought to light with the help of Gladys' trusty key, the hero and heroine get back together so as to show up at the finale in pajama top (hers) and bottom (his).

The delight of the gerrymandered libretto is that, as it skips merrily along, it arranges for so many appealing characters to sing so many appealing ditties. Both Sid, with dictaphone handy, and Babe demonstrate why "Hey, There" burned up the radio waves. (Would that anything approaching its lilt and ingenuity had surfaced in one of this year's original musicals.) The torrid lovers challenge each other excitingly in "There Once Was a Man." Babe and the ladies of the sewing machines get "I'm Not at All in Love" to themselves. Prez and Gladys, and then Prez and Mae (Katie Harvey), have the opportunity to tear into the ungrammatical but cute "Her Is." Hines and Mabel (Gina Ferrall) tread lightly in "I'll Never Be Jealous Again." The company tangos sinuously to "Hernando's Hideaway." Gladys and two strike-threatening co-workers (Edgar Godineaux and Herman Payne) get to dance and sing "Steam Heat."

Which brings this review to the choreography. The Pajama Game was Bob Fosse's Broadway bow, and the sizzle he put into "Steam Heat" remains Main Stem legend. (That legend was only enhanced when Hal Wallis dropped in at an early performance, saw Shirley MacLaine subbing for Carol Haney, and lured the flabbergasted understudy to Hollywood and stardom.) John Carrafa, who showed how clever he could be when he made impressive hoofers out of the Urinetown ensemble, pays homage to Fosse with various leg drags and pelvis bumps in this new version--but his is an unenviable task, as was Susan Stroman's when taking on Agnes de Mille's Oklahoma! dream ballet. (Costume consultant David C. Woolard, who elsewhere dresses the entire company in various combinations of black and white, keeps the bowler hats that were such an integral part of Fosse's vision for "Steam Heat.") Carrafa fares better with the other dances, especially those where couples alone or couples in patterns cavort downstage or on the mid-stage platform that scenic consultant John Lee Beatty has constructed. One of the few other set elements is an upstage flat that features the words "Sleep Tite Pajamas" backwards, as if viewed from the inside of a large factory window. (Might Beatty have made the letters smaller if he'd realized that, for audience members seated house left, the words would appear as "Sleep Tit Pajamas?")

Small talk:
Brent Barrett and Karen Ziemba
in The Pajama Game
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
One of the recurring Encores! miracles is the quality of the casts, particularly considering the short rehearsal time for each show. Yes, the actors carry scripts in binders to keep up the concert-reading illusion, but it's become such a joke that series directors have gotten in the habit of tweaking the convention at least once an evening. (This time around, the joke is related to the drunk Hines' knife-throwing routine.) No one seems to have a problem with line memorization: The pros who show up at Encores!--some of them repeatedly, like Karen Ziemba--know their stuff and are completely prepared to strut it. Director John Rando, putting himself forward as one of today's most accomplished musical overseers, helps them along.

Ziemba, who has been a proficient musical fixture for quite some time now, just gets better and better at what she does. What she doesn't do here is much dancing, but she uses that lantern jaw of hers to give added heft to Babe's many forthright numbers. (Janis Paige, the first Babe Williams, had the same jaw line.) Opposite Ziemba, Brent Barrett--on a short leave from the London transfer of Kiss Me, Kate--brings all the fire to Sid Sorokin that could possibly be fueled. He fills the house with that clarion baritone and also manages to suggest a more complex new-man-in-town attitude than the lines do.

Mark Linn-Baker, who's getting rounder but no less droll as he eases into middle age, leads the rest of the game Game players. He puts an understated drive into his numbers and is matched by Gina Ferrall and Katie Harvey. Jennifer Cody, Poopsie in a Shirley Temple wig, pulls out every squeaky stop to draw attention to her pint-sized self. Deirdre Goodwin has the pizzazz for Gladys and never appears overworked despite her having to carry the bulk of three--count 'em, three!--strenuous second-act routines. Daniel Jenkins' Prez is a funny bundle of nerves and nerviness. And when Rob Fisher's Coffee Club Orchestra strikes up (pun not intended), the Ross-Adler score sparkles. (The ever-ebullient Fisher might, however, want to attend to the occasional odd sounds coming from the horn section.)

Whenever the curtain goes up on an Encores! entry, one of the unstated questions in the heads of patrons--not to mention the producers--is whether what's on offer can be moved to Broadway. Since Jack Viertel took over as artistic director of the series, that query seems even more prevalent. There's little doubt that Rando et al. have already polished The Pajama Game to a Broadway sheen; but, if so, hasn't something of the original intention of Encores! been lost? Okay, cart this jolly Pajama Game to the Great White Way...but the next time a Richard Adler show seems the thing to do, why not roll out the unlikely-ever-to-be-moved but nonetheless crafty and well-crafted Kwamina?