Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The Pajama GameArtistry
Also see Arty's recent reviews of We Shall Someday, Returning to Haifa and What I Learned in Paris
I had seen the film version decades ago, but had not had a chance to see that "something wonderful" on stage for myself until Artistry's current staging of the show, marking the company's welcome return after spending most of the current theatre season regrouping its leadership team and finances. In almost every regard, Artistry's Pajama Game is indeed wonderful, as my four-year old self had imagined. The songs are gold-standard "Golden Age" stuff, the performances in both lead and featured parts are terrific, the costumes (Rane Oganowski), hairstyles (Britt Hilton), and set design (Michaela Lochen) are slyly evocative of its 1950s era, and the whole package is directed and choreographed by Ben Bakken and Allyson Richert with a knowing affection for the vintage nature of the musical. It moves sleekly, confidently, and generous in giving its audience plenty of music dance indeed, the best dancing, in conception and execution, I've seen on a local stage in some time.
So where is the "almost" in my delight? That would be the book, with a plotline that, some seventy years later, seems naïve at best, and jokes that make it clear how far we've gone in gender equality (albeit, with a long way still to go), in that time span. The Pajama Game is set in a midwestern pajama factory, amid labor tensions between management and the union. Humorist Richard Bissell, who grew up in and worked at a pajama factory in Dubuque, Iowa, wrote a novel based on those early experiences, which is the basis of this musical. Bissell, with no stage experience, partnered with the legendary George Abbott, who probably had more stage experience than anybody, to write the book. Abbott also co-directed with Jerome Robbins, another megawatt light of the Broadway stage. An additional legend-to-be was brought in and given his first assignment as a choreographer: Bob Fosse.
Abbot had a hand in a litany of hit shows, and his signature style was: plenty of jokes, plenty of girls, a swift pace, and whatever else works. He was a pragmatist of the first order. That his approach lost its ability to spell success is indicated that, aside from a revival of Rogers and Hart's On Your Toes, the last ten directorial efforts of his seven-decade career were less than successful. But in 1954, when The Pajama Game opened, Abbott was at his peak, Robbins and Fosse at his side, and the production beamed with confidence in its power to entertain. That it did, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical and for Fosse's choreography.
Today the plot feels a bit creaky. New supervisor Sid Sorokin arrives at the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory just as the union is on the verge of going on strike for a lofty (at its time) raise of 7½ cents an hour raise. Almost immediately, Sid has to contend with the union's grievance committee, whose chair, Babe Williams, is a strong-willed, strident force. Naturally, the two almost instantly fall in love. The strain between having a relationship while being on different sides of the labor-management debacle forms most of the plot, but there is room for time-management expert Hines and his unruly jealousy in regard to his girlfriend Gladys, secretary to Sleep Tite's boss, Mr. Hasler. Truth be told, Gladys does nothing to allay Hines' worries. There are also a string of comical (in their day) episodes of the union president, called Prez, who chases after every union member wearing a skirt.
Sid and Babe's love goes from loneliness to denial to disappointment to ecstatic, anger, to impossible to–well, let's just say, Golden Age musicals rarely denied their audiences a happy ending. Fortunately, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross crafted wonderful songs for each of those stages of the relationship, from Sid's "A New Town Is a Blue Town," to Babe's "I'm Not at All in Love," to Sid's "Hey There" (my personal favorite), to "There Once Was a Man," which finally, jubilantly, brings Sid and Babe together, and a series of reprises to get them through the darkness and out to the bright light of everlasting love. A charming duet for the pair, "Small Talk," is not included in this production, though its omission doesn't create any gaps in following the romantic arc between the two leads.
Adler and Ross also turned out terrific character songs and specialty numbers for the rest of the cast: "Racing with the Clock," as Hines presses the girls (no one was a women then, there were only girls) at their sewing machines to speed things up; a hilarious specialty turn for Hines and Mabel (Sid's secretary), "I'll Never Be Jealous Again" that leaves room for a delightful soft-shoe break; a great choral anthem for the company picnic, "Once-a-Year Day"; "Steam Heat," a song that has nothing to do with the plot, performed by the "entertainment committee" at the union rally and a terrific dance routine that unveiled the world what was to become Bob Fosse's signature style, wisely adhered to in the Artistry production.
And then, "Hernando's Hideaway," a song that met the 1950s trend of including a Latin-infused number in every show, a swell tune in its own right, provides an occasion for slinky, tango choreography, and creates the context for key turn of events in The Pajama Game's plot. Also, the staging on a darkened set with performers' faces lit up variously by candles flickering on and off simply dazzles.
As for the cast Artistry has assembled, what a bounty of talent! Starting with the leads, as Sid, Eric Morris has a gloriously rich voice and a sincerity that persuades us he really is in love with Babe, and every bit his match, Falicia Nichole as Babe, singing with old-school musical belt where it's needed and projecting both her moxie as a union leader and the heat she feels for her guy. Carl Swanson is perfectly cast as Hines–the role was originated on Broadway by vaudevillian Eddie Foy Jr. and Swanson steps with elan into that mold, giving his all to specialty turns "I'll Never Be Jealous Again" and "Think of the Time I Save."
Serena Brook is a sassy delight as Mable, while Maureen Sherman-Mendez is a great find as Gladys; competent in her job but not too dependable a love-mate for Hines, she takes charge of "Hernando's Hideaway." Matthew J. Brightbill plays Prez, a role that gives him occasion to demonstrate some great dance moves and join Sherman-Mendez in the cute number "Her Is." Brightbill seems to be having the time of his life as the skirt-chasing Prez, so convincing that I had to hope he was only acting.
Evan Tyler Wilson conducts the on-stage band that provides smooth renditions of all those great Adler and Ross tunes. The pair, by the way, created only one other musical, Damn Yankees, which opened just a year after The Pajama Game, another big hit with Abbott and Fosse both on board again. Ross suffered an untimely death shortly after; Adler lived for many more years and worked on several other shows, but, sadly, none that came close to having the success of the two classics with Ross.
Perhaps the labor-management dust-up and its tidy resolution at Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory seem like a throwback, lacking relevance to today's workplace. However, in 1954 a large portion of Broadway audiences (including my dad) were employed in New York's booming garment center, a sixteen-block hive of clothing manufacturers adjoining the theatre district, and the International Ladies Garment Union was a force to be reckoned with (remember "Look for the Union Label"?). Less able to transit from the 1950s to the 2020s is the rampant sexism throughout the show, and the depiction of men hitting on their female co-workers, and women (or, in 1950s parlance, girls) egging them on.
I say, let it go. The show was written for a different time, but its musical bones remain sturdy, and its characters have their charms. With this excellent production, Artistry makes The Pajama Game a wonderful entertainment and an affectionate glimpse of the "Golden Age" musicals with all their wonderments and flaws. Who knows if we ever would have arrived at Hamilton without them?
The Pajama Game runs through May 14, 2023 at Artistry, Bloomington Center for the Arts, 1800 West Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington MN. Tickets: $52; Seniors (Age 62 and up): $47; Youth (age 12 and under): $20; Next Generation (age 13 - 30): $25. For tickets and information, please call 952-563-8375 or visit artistrymn.org.
Book: George Abbott and Richard Bissell; Music and Lyrics: Richard Adler and Jerry Ross; Director and Choreographer: Allyson Richert an Ben Bakken; Scenic Design: Michaela Lochen; Costume Design: Rane Oganowski; Lighting Design: Alice Endo; Sound Design: Born Into Royalty; Hair and Makeup Design: Britt Hilton; Production Manager and Props Design: Katie Phillips; ; Music Director and Conductor: Evan Tyler Wilson; Intimacy Coordinator: Elena Glass; Technical Director: Jared Shofstall; Associate Choreographer: Elly Stahlke; Stage Manager: Lydia Wagner; Assistant Stage Managers: Jessica Goldade, Isaac Wahl.
Cast: Matthew J. Brightbill (Prez), Serena Brook (Mabel), Justine Cervantes (Hasler/Pops), Abbi Fern (swing), Annika Isbell (Poopsie), James Lane (Max/First Helper), Eric Morris (Sid Sorokin), Falicia Nichole (Babe Williams), Ninchai Nok-Chiclana (Charlie), Chris Sanchez (Joe), Maureen Sherman-Mendez (Gladys), Elly Stahlke (Virginia), Carl Swanson (Hines), Dayle Theisen (Brenda), Gabriella Trentacoste (Mae), Ella Williams (swing).