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The Pajama Game

What's the bottom line on Kathleen Marshall's revival of this 1954 musical comedy? It's tops! logo
Kelli O'Hara and Harry Connick, Jr.
in The Pajama Game
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
It's appropriate that many huge-as-shields buttons festoon the false proscenium of Derek McLane's set for the current revival of the 1954 musical The Pajama Game. This show dates from a time when creators were scrupulous about giving musical numbers "buttons" -- i.e., sharp, applause-inducing finishes. The '50s were also a period when tunesmiths strove to make every song a winner, a fact confirmed by frequent radio airplay and tremendous sales of 45rpm records. (Rosemary Clooney's cover of "Hey There" from the Pajama Game score was a whopping hit.)

Kathleen Marshall has already shown an affinity for the musicals of the so-called Golden Age, having done a fine job with new productions of 1948's Kiss Me, Kate (as choreographer) and 1953's Wonderful Town" (as director-choreographer) in recent years. Now, she has dusted off The Pajama Game. Marshall has furnished the hilarious "Hernando's Hideaway" with a terrific button and with surprises throughout. She's even figured out how to get leading man Harry Connick Jr. to play some New Orleans honky-tonk at an upright piano, which he does as well as anyone you can name.

Connick makes a strong, strapping Main Stem bow as Sid Sorokin, the Sleep-Tite pajama factory's new superintendent, who has to keep the place running in the face of a potential strike. True, Connick doesn't seem entirely at home yet; there's a certain awkwardness to his bearing in some of his moments on stage. But he has a confident stride at other times, and Marshall has seen to it that he looks fine in the dance numbers.

When Connick does seem ill-at-ease, it actually enriches character; this is a Sid Sorokin who has banged around in so many jobs that he's lost a little self-confidence, even though women drool at the sight of him. Connick goes at a ballad more like Frank Sinatra with a slight catch in his throat than like John Raitt, the creator of the role, who had a more "legit" Broadway sound. When he croons, the audience swoons; "Hey There," which Connick as Sid sings with himself thanks to a handy Dictaphone, is a highlight. And just watch how he fixes co-star Kelli O'Hara with a simmering stare throughout his rendition of the seductive "Small Talk." It's a true weak-in-the-knees moment.

O'Hara is a wow. When last seen on Broadway, she was the gleeful but naïve Clara in The Light in the Piazza; now she's rip-roaring Babe Williams, who shows her grit and guts as the head of the Sleep-Tite grievance committee and who's ready to demonstrate she's as tough as any man on the premises. Interestingly, O'Hara has the same strong jaw as Janis Page, who originated the role, and she gets to stick it out prominently during the show -- never more so than in the dynamic "There Once Was a Man" duet, wherein Babe and Sid go at each other like wranglers in World Wrestling Entertainment combat.

While The Pajama Game is something of a star vehicle, a half-dozen opportunities for the secondary leads to shine have been handed out by composer-lyricists Jerry Ross and Richard Adler and librettists George Abbott and Richard Bissell. (The latter's novel 7½ Cents is the musical's source material.) Making their bid for Tony Award consideration by virtue of all-around sparkle are Michael McKean as time-study man Hines, Roz Ryan as no-nonsense executive assistant Mabel, Peter Benson as nerdy grievance committee member Prez, Joyce Chittick as "Steam Heat" sizzler Mae, and squeaky-voiced Megan Lawrence as Hines's girlfriend Gladys, keeper of the all-important company books. Every one of them is ushered center stage for at least one show-stopping turn. And how about a hand for David Eggers and Vince Pesce, who add their steam to Chittick's in "Steam Heat?" Their dancing would have made original choreographer Bob Fosse nod in approval.

The near-perfection of this production extends to McLane's fluid set, which features pairs of pajamas flying by on pulleys; Martin Pakledinaz's costumes, delightful throughout and especially in a closing-number fashion parade; Peter Kaczorowski's bright lighting; and Brian Ronan's scintillating sound design.

Seeing this show in 2006, one has to concede that Sid Sorokin's behavior around the office might be taken for sexual harassment nowadays. Otherwise, the musical is only dated in its unquestioned respect for unions and its advocacy of the wearing of pajamas. In his penny-pinching defense, Sleep-Tite CEO Hasler says, "Pajamas are at a crossroads." But there's no worrisome bottom line for The Pajama Game. This show is tops.

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