Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June, 2007
The Pajama Game is one of those ho-hum musicals from the 1950’s, but it had its 50th anniversary in 2004, followed by the inevitable Broadway revival in 2006. Under the star-power of sex-symbol crooner Harry Connick, Jr. it toddled off with the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical (although Connick did not win his category), and so it is now being produced by every community theatre and summer stock house in the country, including the Mac-Haydn.
The plot is a basic boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl scenario, set in the 1950’s in the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The boy in question is Sid Sorokin (Rob Richardson), the new factory superintendent, who falls for Katherine “Babe” Williams (Kirstin Riegler), a Union activist and head of the plant’s grievance committee. What comes between them in the Union’s decision to stage a slow-down until they get a seven-and-a-half cent raise. They are reunited when Sid successfully negotiates the raise, after getting the company secretary Gladys Hotchkiss (Emily Franklin) drunk, wooing the key to company’s ledger from her, and discovering the boss, Mr. Hasler’s (Thom Caska), skullduggery.
The rest of the cast are mostly comic stereotypes: the knife-throwing Time Efficiency Manager Vernon Hines (Al Pagano) who has the hots for, but doesn’t trust, Gladys; the hopelessly inefficient and catty secretary Mabel (Kathy Halenda); the skirt-chasing Union president Prez (Austin Riley Green); Babe’s kindly old father Pop (Matt Dengler); and a bevy of squeaky-voiced office floozies, notably Mary Elizabeth Milton as Poopsie, and Rachel Rhodes-Devey as Mae.
While the book for the recent Broadway revival had book revisions by Peter Ackerman, the Mac-Haydn production does not carry that credit, nor does it include the two new Act II numbers that the 2006 production incorporated, so I must assume they are using George Abbott and Richard Bissell’s original. Bissell wrote the novel 7 ½ Cents on which the show was based, and Abbott was a legendary “show doctor” who also directed the original Broadway production, in tandem with Jerome Robbins, in 1954. Bob Fosse created the original choreography, most notably the Act II opener Steam Heat, which can be seen in the 1957 film version starring Doris Day and 39% of the original Broadway cast.
What saves this show from being a hopelessly dated mediocrity are the surprisingly modern music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, who wrote a handful of Broadway shows but their only other score that has stood the test of time is Damn Yankees. The music doesn’t sound like Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Loewe or Cole Porter. It has a fresh sort of 1950’s lounge sound that makes it memorable. And it concerned average working Americans at a time when that was who the Broadway audience was. Manufacturing was king and the salaries it paid enabled the comfortable middle-class Leave It To Beaver lifestyle to which all Americans aspired.
Director Joseph Patton has two solid and appealing leads in Richardson and Reigler. I really enjoyed watching them tear up the stage together in their final duet There Once Was A Man. They were both obviously having a ball singing that number and let loose with powerful voices. Richardson has been a Mac-Haydn leading man before, but Riegler is a newcomer and does an admirable job of handling the spotlight. She has just the right fresh-faced look for the part, coupled with the aforementioned strong singing voice and good stage presence. She is not the actor Richardson is, and didn’t really convey a whole lot of Babe’s emotions and character development, but she looked pretty and sang pretty and that was enough.
Energetic Emily Franklin dances up a storm as Gladys, the role that made a star of Shirley MacLaine (And she was only Carol Haney’s understudy!) Franklin is limber and funny, with her mop of frizzy red hair piled awkwardly in the top of her head. Although Steam Heat should be her big star spot, she is dragged down slightly by chorus boys Peter Stoffan and Jamison Forman. Where she really shines is in Hernando’s Hideaway where she easily tosses an ankle up on to Richardson’s lofty shoulder.
I am now officially impressed by Al Pagano, who has presented three incredibly different and entertaining characters in the first three shows of the Mac-Haydn season. It is really hard to believe that the same actor played straight-arrow Sheriff File in 110 in the Shade, exotic Ali Hakim, the “Perisan” Peddler, in Oklahoma! and goofy nerd Vernon Hines here in Pajama Game. I can hardly wait to see what he comes up with next! In this incarnation he does a fake knife throwing act that is just brilliantly handled. I know how it was done, but I missed it every time because my eyes were glued to Pagano instead of where the knife was supposedly traveling.
Halenda is completely wasted as Mabel, but she looks like she’s having fun in her brightly colored costumes and rhinestone-encrusted cat-eye glasses. I hope we get to see her in a more substantial role soon.
Poor Caska keeps having to spray gray powder in his hair and play middle-aged guys. He isn’t middle-aged and he’s not very convincing playing that age. I hope he gets a chance to do something completely different soon. Likewise here Dengler is all grayed up to play Riegler’s father when I don’t think he’s even old enough to date her.
Patton and choreographer Christine O’Grady keep people and sewing machines and desks and sofas flying on and off stage at a brisk pace. Tirza Chappell has designed peppy costumes that are true to the era without looking musty. Actually, I was struck by how many of the mid-50’s styles, like peddle-pushers and sleeveless button-down shirts, are right in fashion again. I liked the Sleep-Tite logo on the corporate smocks and jumpsuits, and I loved everybody’s PJs in the finale, especially Halenda’s.
Bob Hamel kept the set safely out of the way of everyone’s flying feet. I did like his red, yellow and blue “sewing machines” which were really clever minimalist wooden sculptures that evoked that appliance. Lighting designer Andrew Gmoser has created a clever flash-light routine for Hernando’s Hideway that really does make it, as a toddler of my acquaintance once rendered it, “...a dark, too dark a place!”
As I arrived at the Mac-Haydn there were a group of ladies, young and old, who had worn their PJs, robes, and fuzzy slippers to the show and were happily posing for photos under the theatre’s perky pink and black roadside sign on Rt. 203. I am not quite sure what the thrill is. The one time I wore my nightie and silly slippers to a costume party I ended up having to convince the Williamstown Fire Department that I was not insane (long story, don’t ask.) But if you enjoy wearing your pajamas in public, go right ahead. Unlike the Red Hat Ladies, your ensemble will not obstruct anyone’s view once the lights go down, so I can see no harm in it.
The Pajama Game runs through July 1 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Route 203 just north of the center of Chatham, NY. The show runs two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-9292.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007