Can anyone think of a better vehicle for Harry Connick, Jr. than “The Pajama Game?” Without a doubt, it’s the perfect showcase not only for this comely multi-talented entertainer’s sterling pipes but also his sculptured pectorals (though for the pecs you have to wait for the finale). Although Connick performed in concert on Broadway in 1990, this is his theatrical debut, an occasion that will assure him more plaudits than he earned for the fine score (also a first) he composed in 2002 for the failed musical, “Thou Shalt Not.”
One has to think back to the theatrical debut of film star Hugh Jackman (“The Boy from Oz”) for a performance as impressively polished (as in who knew?) as is Connick’s. That he has already proved himself a disarmingly engaging singer/musician with the relaxed assurance and sound of Frank Sinatra, an obvious idol, only gives him an edge in a role closely associated with original star John Raitt and perhaps a few other formidable baritones. Notwithstanding the sly hint that he is having more fun with the role than perhaps an acting guru like Stanislavski might approve, he essays the role of Sid Sorokin, the attractive new factory superintendent, with a charming air of credibility. He also moves through the dance numbers with playful panache.
As it turns out, the recent New York City transit strike with its protracted talks — not to mention the impending strike by Macy’s Herald Square employees — certainly helped to make this labor versus management show notably topical. Happily, the love versus labor relations at the “Sleep Tite” pajama factory in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, couldn’t have found a more buoyant and ingratiating company than the one director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall has assembled for an unfortunately limited engagement for this Roundabout Theater production (but things like this do have a way of changing).
The other romantic lead, Babe, the head of the union’s grievance committee, is played with plucky pizzazz by pretty Kelli O’Hara, who most winningly meets all the tough and tender demands of the role. O’Hara, a winner of the state Metropolitan Opera auditions, who most recently delighted and showed off her impressive vocal range in “The Light in the Piazza” (Tony nomination), handles her vocals with an impressive technique, particularly in the octave-jumping duet with Sid “There Once Was a Man.” Alone, Connick and O’Hara sizzle, but together they are dynamite.
Much of the excitement of “The Pajama Game” is expressed in its wittily insinuating and now famous dance creations, the jazzy “Steam Heat” and the tango-flavored “Hernando’s Hideaway.” These have been wonderfully re-conceived by Marshall with only a respectful nod to the show’s original choreographer, Bob Fosse, using the famously angular moves that have defined “Steam Heat” for the ages. Now donning the obligatory bowler hat and suit is the sprightly, quirky Joyce Chittick, who plays wall-flower Mae, and who, teamed with the masculine partnering of Vince Pesce and David Eggers, give the number the renewable lease it deserves. Overall (and it’s not a gripe) Marshall’s choreography, as in the big company picnic ballet, “Once a Year Day,” seems geared to refresh and delight, rather than show off the technique of this terrific dancing corps.
If “Steam Heat” has its predictability, the satiric sultriness of “Hernando’s Hideaway” gets a whole new lease given the added excitement created when a piano is rolled onto the dance floor for Connick. His jazzy honky-tonk interpolations are as refreshing integrated as is the humorous action that Marshall has marshaled to enhance it. Sid’s romancing of the boss’s secretary, the red-headed tomato, Gladys (Megan Lawrence), for the sole purpose of getting the key to the business ledger that she wears around her neck, also provides an opportunity for the inebriated Lawrence to stop the show in her own right with some riotously acrobatic behavior.
This may only be Marshall’s third Broadway show (“Wonderful Town” on Broadway and “Two Gentlemen of Verona” in Central Park), but her individuality and flair as a choreographer/director is even more in evidence here. “The Pajama Game” places her firmly at the top of her profession.
It’s good to report that the score, chock-full of appealing songs, is not being botched up by overzealous electronic enhancement. As caringly conducted by Bob Berman, the intimate ballad “Hey There” (sung by Connick and then reprised by O’Hara) is afforded the sense of intimate impact it needs.
But it’s the up numbers, the rib-tickling “Racing with the Clock,” in which rows of sewing machine operators sing in counterpoint, and the rousing “Seven and a Half Cents,” as delivered by the rallying labor-force chorus, that get one into the true spirit of the genre.
“The Pajama Game” relies a lot on its comical cartoon spirit. As the bespectacled nerdy Prez, Peter Benson may not look like your typical head of a union, but he gets this vote for his Jerry Lewis-like antics romancing Gladys (“Her Is”). Michael McKean, as Hines, the factory’s frantic jealous knife-throwing (don’t ask) time-study manager who endears himself as an audience favorite early on (“I’ll Never Be Jealous Again”), is abetted by a formidably funny Roz Ryan, as Mabel, Old Man Hasler’s wise and wise-cracking executive secretary. A more droll side of Hines is exposed by McKean who sings “The Three of Us,” with music and lyrics by Adler, which was originally written for Jimmy Durante in the 1960s. It is touchingly interpolated into the show as a reconciliation number for Hines and Gladys, who previously never had a number together. Purists will most likely be disposed to consider the addition of two other songs.
It’s a pleasure to hear Connick sing a beautiful ballad, “The World Around Us,” which was cut from the show during its out-of-town tryout. Its dramatic value gives Sid a much needed ballad in the second act. Lastly, the reprise of “Hey There,” sung by O’Hara, segues effortlessly into “If You Win, You Lose.” This is a real winner that’s has been used in other productions but has never been heard on Broadway.
This production, with its still witty book originally the work of George Abbott and Richard Bissell and now featuring book revisions by Peter Ackerman, not only doesn’t show its age but it’s virtually wrinkle free. It has been given a richly-hued expressionistic 1950s buttons-bedecked, sewing machine wheels-a-spinning decor by Derek McLane. More likely to make your head spin are the bright and period-right polka-dot, plaid, and striped “Sleep Tite” fashions created by costumer Martin Pakledinaz. You could say that lighting wizard Peter Kaczorowski has his work cut out for him to keep this cast from out-shining his exemplary work.
Given the complete canon of memorable American musicals from what is acknowledged as the golden age, “The Pajama Game,” which was a huge hit when it premiered with Janis Paige and that formidable baritone Raitt, easily comes to mind as fitting for a Broadway revival. Yet a Broadway revival in 1973 lasted but 65 performances, though the widely loved and hugely popular score seeded a 1989 New York City Opera production with Judy Kaye and Richard Muenz. There was also an excellent 1957 Warner Bros film directed by Stanley Donen with most of the original Broadway performers, plus Doris Day.
The latest revival is certainly not one to be missed. Perhaps my partiality for this exuberantly sassy show also stems from my playing the original cast recording to distraction in my youth. ***
“The Pajama Game,” through June 18, Roundabout at American Airlines Theater, 227 W. 42nd Street. $76.25 to $101.25. 212-719-1300.