The Pajama Game
Richard Adler & Jerry Ross (Music & Lyrics); George Abbott & Richard Bissell (Book)
Based on the Novel, 7½ Cents by Richard Bissell
Script Updated for 42nd Street Moon by Annie Potter
42nd Street Moon
Just try leaving 42nd Street Moon’s current toe-tapping, smile-producing, chuckle-a-minute production of The Pajama Game without humming “7½ Cents”. If not “7½ Cents,” how about “Hey There,” “There Once Was a Man,” “Steam Heat,” or “Hernando’s Hideaway”? The list of all-time favorites by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (music and lyrics) goes on and on in this Tony Awards 1954 Best Musical and 2006 Best Revival of a Musical. The cast members of 42nd Street Moon’s The Pajama Game – especially those in the key roles – time and again more than do their parts to ensure the ear worms will stay with us all the way home and into the next day. And if the music memories start to wane, the upbeat, high-jinks of the Moon cast’s choreography will send you into dreamland with visions of cartwheels, soft shoe, and high kicks galore.
With labor unions once again in 2022 beginning to assert their strength as they make strides in union-resistant companies like Starbucks and Amazon, this 1954 musical comedy about a worker-management dispute over wages rings with current relevance, thanks partly to 42nd Street Moon’s update of the original book (George Abbott and Richard Bissell) by Annie Potter. While there is much silliness and hilarity as workers slow down production and sabotage PJ waistlines with non-binding elastic, there is also a message that compromise is possible between traditionally opposing sides and that friendship – and even love itself – can be a bridge to make allies out of enemies.
Sid Sorokin has just arrived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to be the new superintendent of the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory, where Vernon Hines as the efficiency timekeeper runs around with his stopwatch making sure PJs are being stitched as quickly as possible. On his first day Sid runs into (literally) a slacking troublemaker who accuses him of worker-aimed abuse, leading to the head of the union’s grievance committee, Katherine “Babe” Williams, coming to Sid’s office to sort the matter out.
While it is obvious to Babe that the new super was set up, it is also clear both to Babe and to Sid that between her as a worker and him as boss there are sparks flying – more due to instant, mutual attraction than from any labor-management conflict. While both are quickly ready to seal the deal for a contract of love, a little matter (that is actually a big deal) about a demand by the workers for a seven-and-a-half-cents per hour wage increase which the factory’s owner adamantly opposes – a grouchy skinflint, Mr. Hasler – stands as a possible deal-breaker for a Babe-Sid union.
It only takes a few bars into Sid’s first song (“A New Town Is a Blue Town”) for Ben Jones to prove that with his terrific voice and stage-commanding manner, he will be able to sell any number he undertakes the entire evening. That certainly becomes the case when he brings a 1940s-50s style to the well-known “Hey There” where he sings to his love-sick self, “You with the stars in your eyes,” in a manner where notes float with a bit of a romantic slide one to the other. Dictating a memo to himself that he should just forget this Babe who is a stalwart (and even stubborn) worker’s rights leader, he cannot help but still sing in a duet with himself with lingering, longing affection as he plays back his dictation, “Won’t you take this advice … brother or … is it all going in one ear and out the other?”
For her part, Babe tries her best in “I’m Not at All in Love” to make a case to her highly skeptical co-workers, “Not I, not a bit, not a might, though I admit he’s quite a hunk of a guy.” Swinging her tape measure while trying to be nonchalant, Ashley Garlick as Babe previews in her evening’s debut her own set of first-rate vocals that shine forth in clarity and power in all her numbers.
When Babe and Sid team up in such numbers as the back-and-forth, flirty banter of “Small Talk” or the ‘yippee-yi-yay’ styled “There Once Was a Man,” Ashley Garlick and Ben Jones particularly sparkle with spiff and polish. In the latter, the electricity between the two is palpable as they each yodel in the style of the Wild West about their obvious love for the other, all the time swinging each other around the factory floor using a ladder on wheels (with amazing adeptness on both actors’ parts to unlock-and-lock the ladder in between pushing and twirling it as the other is ascending and descending in bold dance moves).
But the flame between the two spurts and sputters a bit when Babe admits to jamming the factory line as part of the workers’ protest for their 7½-cents raise and when Sid thus fires her on the spot. Every good love story needs a crisis, and this one only provides more fodder for the two to show off their wide range of musical prowess as they get to be regretful and reflective in upcoming numbers (“When You Win, You Lose” and “Hey There Reprise”).
As this love story has its ups and downs, a lot else is happening in and around the factory floor that gives others in the cast chances to strut their stuff. Nick Nakashima is a delight as the time-watching, somewhat fuddy-duddy Vernon Hines who is also highly jealous of his prone-to-flirt girlfriend, Gladys. When ‘Hinsey’ loses his cool once again in the office thinking Gladys is two-timing him, Sid’s secretary and the office’s mother hen, Mabel (Tracy Camp), pulls him aside; and the two pull off one of the night’s high-light numbers (“I’ll Never Be Jealous Again”). With a little soft shoe and back-and-forth one-liners reminiscent of a Vaudeville team, Mabel tests Hines’ ability to brush off compromising scenes she paints of Gladys with bits of clothing left behind by someone other than Hines. Nick Nakashima later further tickles us again as his Hines skips across the floor swinging with abound his pocket watch singing with animated bounce, “Think of the Time I Save.”
Even though she is the highly trusted and quick-witted secretary of the ol’ stick-in-the-mud, Mr. Hasler (Jesse Caldwell), Gladys in fact does have a tendency to strut her stuff when there is any man around (other than her boss, of course). Renee DeWeese particularly rules the stage whenever she has a chance to show off the highly energetic and wonderfully varied choreography she has also designed for the show. That is particularly true in “Steam Heat” where she is joined by Tony Conaty and Lleyton Allen as the three in bowler hats, red suspenders and baggy pants rhythmically slap hands, knees, and legs while throwing in some mighty high kicks along the way.
(Lleyton Allen impressively hits the target throughout the evening as he debuts in his first professional role as a last-minute, COVID-forced substitute, playing two roles: handyman Charley and salesman Max. Kudos also go to Tosca Maltzman who is a comic charm as she plays her own role as Poopsie and also as a COVID stand-in as Mae.)
The dance steps also reign supreme for Gladys and her cohorts in “Hernando’s Hideaway,” with both it and “Steam Heat” having a promise to be remembered more for the choreography than for the singing. (Small ensemble numbers in general are well danced throughout the evening, but sometimes the singing does not have the umph and volume power to match the energy of the steps, turns, and kicks.)
Gladys combines cartwheels, sky-high kicking, and even ballet moves in a fun “Her Is” as she toys with skirt-chasing (and married) head of the union, Prez, who hilariously tries to match her dance moves while also hoping to get to first base with her – only in both cases to end up flat on the floor. Matt Hammons is another last-minute cast member due to a COVID casualty (with Daniel Thomas originally playing the part), but he never misses a beat during this first evening in the role as the somewhat sleezy but still likable union head, Prez. That is especially true when he joins Babe and the rest of the workers in a dynamic, fabulously directed march as they figure out their future wealth in 5, 10, and 20 years if they can just get that raise – all as danced and sung in “Seven-and-a-Half Cents.”
And speaking of direction, much credit deservedly goes to Becky Potter for scene after scene of well-timed-and-paced hilarity that works so well with the choreography of Renee DeWeese. No better example is there than the company picnic extravaganza “Once-a-Year Day” where full chorus voices in rousing harmony accompany a series of events from sack race to polka to a guys versus gals tug-of-war.
Carrie Mullen has cleverly designed a sparse factory floor whose wooden walls roll out to reveal hidden office and apartment spaces. Katie Dowse’s costumes are a fun flow of 1950s wear, both for the office and for the latest in pajama designs of the time. Armando Fox as Music Director also serves as able pianist and conductor of the on-stage but slightly hidden band of five.
Besides providing a thoroughly enjoyable trip down memory’s lane for those of us who are fans of both the songs and the story of The Pajama Game as well as providing a perfect introduction for newbies through this updated version, 42nd Street Moon demonstrates to us all the perseverance and determination of live theatre not only to survive but thrive during a stubbornly persistent and disruptive pandemic. Congratulations to the entire cast, crew, and administration of the Moon for hanging in and bringing its audience a first-class night out on the town.
Rating: 4 E
The Pajama Game continues through July 19, 2022, in production by 42nd Street Moon at the Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at https://42ndstmoon.org
Photo Credits: Ben Krantz