Center Stage’s Take on ‘The Pajama Game’ Has a Great Cast that Almost Overcomes the Weakness of the Story Line

Review by Howard Gradet
pajama'd babe
Meg Gillentine plays Gladys in Center Stage’s production of “The Pajama Game,” through Dec. 2. Photo © Richard Anderson
The Pajama Game, book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell; words and music by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross; choreographed by Willie Rosario; set designed by Walt Spangler; costumes designed by Catherine Zuber; directed by Irene Lewis. At Center Stage (Head Theatre) through December 2.

Looking back at it from half a century on, we can see that the creators of “The Pajama Game” were trying for a new kind of musical, one that dealt with serious, middle class American issues, while keeping the boy-meets-girl-
boy-loses-girl-boy-gets-girl format that is as old as cheap theater.

Based on the novel 7 1/2 Cents by Richard Bissell, “The Pajama Game” is a story of love in a time of labor unrest in an Iowa pajama factory. She's spunky labor, he's hunky management, and the workers are getting ready to strike for a 7 1/2 cent per hour raise. They meet on opposite sides of a personnel issue, they fall in love, the impending strike separates them, but things work out before the final curtain. And that's it for plot.

The elements of the show itself are wildly uneven. Abbott and Bissell's not-funny-enough-not-
serious-enough book was barely serviceable when it was new, and hasn't aged well: too many characters, not enough characterization, too many unnecessary details that might have meant something in the novel, but add nothing in the show—do we really need Pop's stamp collection? or Pop? or two secretaries? or... Note to future producers: never let the novelist adapt his own book for the stage. You can tell what they were trying for, in this early attempt to give personality to a myriad of minor characters. They were on the right track, but couldn't pull it off.

What people remember about “Pajama Game” is the score. At a time when pop music came from Broadway, this show gave us at least three standards still alive today—"Steam Heat," "Hey There" and "Hernando's Hideaway." And many of the other songs are bright and maddeningly melodic. Okay, there are a couple of clunkers—"A New Town is a Blue Town" may be the worst song ever kept in a ’50s musical, and some of the comedy numbers are show-stoppers in the wrong way. But at a time when Broadway was owned by Rodgers and Hammerstein, whose roots were firmly set in European soil, the young team of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross was a breath of young, very American fresh air.

For all its purported seriousness, “Pajama Game” seems an odd choice for Center Stage. Not that they don't do it well—they do, although Irene Lewis doesn't have the sense of fun needed to make the show sizzle, and she isn't able to minimize its many weaknesses.

The production, for the most part, takes the ’50s style and runs with it. Catherine Zuber's costumes in ’50s orange and cranberry hit the mark—Meg Gillentine as the office sexpot wears them especially well. However, it's hard enough to differentiate the office workers without their wearing matching costumes, and, call me old-fashioned, but having the stage hands and band wearing striped pajamas is a rather off-putting, concentration camp touch. And I kind of missed the knotted-shirt-tail-bare-midriff thing that Doris Day wore so well in the movie.

Walt Spangler's set is a giant sewing machine that limits Willie Rosario's choreography. It's a wild idea—so inventive, so Center Stage—that just doesn't work for a ’50s musical.

Willie Rosario's choreography is energetic and sometimes on the mark, but he slips into Oscar-opening mode too often. He seems to get the ’50s movement vocabulary right in "Her Is," thanks in large part to Meg Gillentine's arms and shoulders and hips, but loses it completely in the frenetic "Steam Heat" and the unfocused "Hernando's Hideaway." No one says the dances have to look like Bob Fosse's original choreography, but his unique style helped cover a lot of musical weaknesses. When there was no logical reason for a number to be in the show, Fosse's choreography was reason enough. Willie Rosario's isn't.

There are five major roles in the show, and in them Center Stage has five winners. Robert Bartley and Christianne Tisdale, Sid and Babe, are nothing if not hunky and spunky; there is palpable chemistry between them, even during the curtain call, and they are both accomplished singers and actors with major Broadway credentials. Although Bartley's voice thins out alarmingly at the top, his "Hey There" is an affecting and poignant highlight of the show. He even makes the godawful "New Town" almost palatable, and he sounds more real than John Raitt.

Tisdale has all the spunk the part calls for, and a terrific voice. I missed the husky sexiness Janis Paige and Doris Day brought to the Broadway production and the movie, but Tisdale looks great and makes it easy to see why Sid would fall for Babe so fast, and so hard. She's wonderfully effective in "I'm Not At All In Love" and "There Once Was a Man"; too bad the creators of the show forgot to give Babe a solo.

Each of the more minor roles—the sexpot Gladys, the jealous Hines and the horny Prez—is handled in a major way. Michael Brian's Prez has a lot of energy and he brings a major presence to the one-note lecher. In his moves and attitude, he somehow embodies the spirit of the ’50s show dancer. Don't ask me to explain this, but he looks like he stepped out of the ’50s.

Gladys is the role originated by the great Carol Haney, and understudied for a very short time by the then-unknown Shirley MacLaine. Meg Gillentine is cute and sexy—Lara Flyn Boyle's face on a Stepford body. [Note: watch for Gillentine next winter when she does the "real" "Steam Heat" choreography in PBS' Fosse.]

No production of “Pajama Game” floats or sinks on its Hinesy, the jealous time-study man, but he's on stage a lot, he's even a narrator of sorts, and he gets more than his share of songs. So the fact that Robert Dorfman is just about perfect in the part, on paper and in reality, mugging, singing, dancing, whatever—raises the quality of the production whenever he moves. Or doesn't move, and just stands there and his eyebrows move. He is Danny Kaye and Groucho Marx and every great vaudevillian who ever stole a laugh out from under the stars of the show.

If there were no other reason to recommend this production, Dorfman would be sufficient. But despite its flaws, some intrinsic to the material, some added by the production, this “Pajama Game” is still a lot of fun, and I would vote for more shows like it at Center Stage.


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This story was published on November 7, 2001.