The Pajama Game Book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell. Music and Lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross. Based on the Novel "7½ Cents" by Richard Bissell. Book Revisions for this Production by Peter Ackerman. Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall. Musical supervisor/vocal and dance arranger David Chase. Orchestrations by Dick Lieb and Danny Troob. Set design by Derek McLane. Costume design by Martin Pakledinaz. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Sound design by Brian Ronan. Cast: Harry Connick, Jr., Kelli O'Hara, Michael McKean, Peter Benson, Joyce Chittick, Megan Lawrence, Michael McCormick, Richard Poe, Roz Ryan, Bridget Berger, Stephen Berger, Kate Chapman, Paula Leggett Chase, Jennifer Cody, David Eggers, Michael Halling, Bianca Marroquin, Michael O'Donnell, Vince Pesce, Devin Richards, Jeffrey Schecter, Amber Stone, Debra Walton.
Can't wait for Mardi Gras? Fear not: You can now substitute a trip to the American Airlines for a trip to New Orleans. For the next couple of months, you'll hear plenty of Big Easy easy listening: It is, apparently, the only way Harry Connick Jr. can sing.
Not that his role in Roundabout's revival of The Pajama Game was intended that way. When the show first opened in 1954, Sid Sorokin, the new superintendent of a Midwest pajama factory, was played by quintessential big Broadway baritone John Raitt. But cast a contemporary crooner like Connick, a New Orleans native, and certain allowances must be made.
Tone, for example, though let's forgive him his myriad liquidy notes - theatre singing isn't his natural milieu. Accuracy, though, is another matter: His incessant scooping up to most notes in most songs suggests he's not sure where the pitches actually are. And his aversion to vowels? It's interesting at first to hear him sustain so many notes on consonants (his favorites are Ns and Rs), but when there's still a full show ahead, you start praying that someone who knows what he's doing will take over.
That would exclude most involved with this monumentally clueless Pajama Game, which finds no fun in labor relations and has you praying for an Equity or IATSE strike long before intermission. So let's put Connick aside for the moment and focus on the work of director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall.
She's an erratic talent, as likely to fashion a dancy, sunny theatrical Valentine (the 2003 revival of Wonderful Town) as a misfiring rocket of potential energy (last summer's Two Gentlemen of Verona in Central Park). Yet her past choices, even when unsuccessfully implemented, have reflected a vision and consistency entirely absent from this misbegotten mess. This time around, she's directed two shows, neither of them good.
The first follows the romance of superintendent Sid and the head of Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory's grievance committee, Babe Williams (Kelli O'Hara). The two meet and fall for each other and try to deny their feelings, but labor and management eventually come together, only to be torn apart by a looming strike over the seven-and-a-half-cent raise plant manager Mr. Hasler (Richard Poe) refuses to grant his employees. The second is about intertwining underlings, work-efficiency expert Vernon Hines (Michael McKean) and Gladys (Megan Lawrence), the keeper of Hasler's super-secret account book, and union president Prez (Peter Benson) and geeky girl Mae (Joyce Chittick), whom he turns into a sexpot with his love and attention.
Ideally, both shows would happily coexist within George Abbott and Richard Bissell's book (based on Bissell's novel 7½ Cents), and on Derek McLane's Life-magazine colorful sets. At least until the paper-thin plot dissolves when romance and comedy clash in the Hernando's Hideaway nightspot. But the story hardly gets started, because all the characters cohabitate about as well as oil and water.
Sid, Babe, and most of the characters surrounding them are realistically, if dryly, rendered. But McKean, Benson, Chittick, and especially Lawrence all behave like rejects from Hanna-Barbera cartoons - all slick surface frivolity with absolutely nothing happening underneath.
That would matter less with a dynamic Sid and Babe at the show's center. But Connick, who sings stiffly and looks as though a strong wind gust would break him in two, can't help. Nor can O'Hara: She's displayed spunky, down-to-earth charm (and a killer soprano) in her previous roles in shows like The Light in the Piazza and Sweet Smell of Success, but here must belt blandly through her songs and deliver her lines with dispassionate, disinterested tones usually reserved for discussing finer plot points from Brady Bunch reruns. (Costume designer Martin Pakledinaz and wig designer Paul Huntley have even outfitted her like a mid-1970s Florence Henderson.)
The most natural performances come from Poe, Roz Ryan as a meddling but wise secretary, and Michael McCormick in two tiny supporting roles (most notably Babe's father). Their anchoring their work, however minimal, in the real world is very much welcome.
And beside the point, with Marshall at the helm. She adds three songs to the second act that slow the action down when it should be gaining momentum. (Abbott and Bissell's book, revised for this production by Peter Ackerman, may be paper thin, but left alone, it does move.) Her choreography is at best functional and forgettable, especially in the usually boiling second-act opener, "Steam Heat," which is danced by here by Chittick, David Eggers, and Vince Pesce as though they were caught in a snowstorm. Her other numbers are also too busily staged, usually with props that suggest she doesn't trust the songs to land on their own.
She should. "Hey There," "Once-a-Year Day," and "Small Talk" are gloriously tuneful classics, and the cowboy-copulation duet "There Once Was a Man" remains one of the best musical theatre songs ever written, period. So why Connick plays it solely for laughs, swiveling his hips throughout like Elvis and routinely singing off the beat, thus denuding the number of any visceral or musical impact? And why does sound designer Brian Ronan consistently reduce music director Rob Berman's fine (if tiny) orchestra to a heartless wall of sound? And why does nearly everyone treat songs as grandstanding opportunities rather than emotional expressions?
Most importantly, why can't the songs be sung by people just playing people?
Musicalgoers seeking out classic works this season don't have many options:
They either get the gallumphing grotesques of John Doyle's Sweeney Todd or
Marshall's wild-eyed cartoons. If the choices don't get much better than
these, you'll have to forgive me if, like Babe, I'm not at all in love.