The 1950s have long been our favorite decade for spoofing,
especially in front of audiences with long memories. We’re hardly into
the action of The Pajama Game before the audience is chortling over Jimmy Johansmeyer’s period costumes, shoes and wigs. But this is not the blandness of Leave It to Beaver or Happy Days.
The world of George Abbott and Richard Bissell’s book is surprisingly
arch and ironic, with a wink-wink here, and a nudge-nudge there.
Admittedly, it does sound quaint that workers in a pajama factory
might be striking for a measly raise of 7½ cents. The central love
story, however, becomes a feint anticipation of Norma Rae, in
which a cosmopolitan outsider, Sid Sorokin (Marcus Goldhaber), crosses
class and labor-management lines to fall for a gutsy working girl, Babe
Williams (Sonya Cooke).
Pushing aside social consciousness, however, The Pajama Game remains
a robust musical comedy that delivers on its promise. Which takes us
back to Jerry Ross and Bob Fosse. Ross generously shared credit for all
the music and lyrics with his collaborator Richard Adler, but recent
scrutiny has determined that music in the five best-known songs came
from Ross with words only by Adler. Ross also ecstatically connected
with Fosse in the two biggest dance numbers that are barely connected
with the rest of the book at all.
The premise for “Steam Heat” at the opening of the second act is
that the pajama workers have to share the union hall with the
steamfitters and want to show solidarity with them. And they do. Out
come those Fosse-eque bowler hats, and choreographer Daniel B. Hess
takes over the stage, so that we temporarily forget the pending strike.
Tall, rapier-thin Gladys (Amy Desiato) begins with a fluffy,
black-and-white costume that’s soon whisked away to reveal two lithe
and slender gams that ascend above the dancer’s head in successive
swoops, like vertical splits. With her are Matthew Couvillion and Ben
Gleichauf. The undercurrent of forbidden, unspoken sensuality, limited
by the 1950s’ censorious ways, is also what helps keep that decade
artistically fascinating. Gladys, not incidentally, is the role that
hoisted the 20-year-old MacLaine to stardom.
Gladys also leads into the other big dance number in the second act,
when she promises to take Sid Sorokin to “Hernando’s Hideaway.” There’s
scarcely a U.S. citizen over the age of 50 who doesn’t know every note
and word of this mock tango. Examined anew with the entire ensemble
into the act, we see there’s more to it. According to Richard Bissell’s
novel 7½ Cents, there actually was a roadhouse across
the state line where workers in Cedar Rapids could cut loose. Within
the show it becomes a fantasy escape where the possibility of sin is
painted in pastel colors, and the world of work and labor strife are
banished. Once again choreographer Hess takes over the show, where
“Hernando’s Hideaway,” while not advancing the plot, becomes the peak
None of this should be seen as demeaning the efforts of director
Bert Bernardi and his talented leads. Take, for example, the song from
the show that became the biggest hit in its day, the poignant “Hey
There.” As it makes a break with the wit and rapid pace of the rest of
the show, the song needs a strong hand for the shift to genuine,
shimmering emotion. The first act’s solo allows Goldhaber as Sid his
finest moment. The reprise in the second act by Sonya Cooke as Babe
comes right after “Steam Heat” but is even more affecting. Cooke’s
acting chops raise the dramatic tension within the book, almost
suggesting a corn-fed version of Flora the Red Menace. But her shaping and phrasing of “Hey There” marks herself as the superior voice in the show.
Two other duets play up different aspects of their relationship. One
is the Sousa-like march, “Once-A-Year-Day,” which leads into a big
dance number that only hints at the Fosse panache to come. More loving
and lovelier is “There Once Was a Man (I Love You More),” heard in both
the first and second acts, the remainder of the top songs surely
ascribed to Ross.
Which leads us back to comedy. Company favorite Dominick Varney
already enjoys an unstated contract with Cortland Repertory audiences,
which gives him assurance but not cockiness. He can try anything, and
we know he’s not going to fail. Here he is Hines (sometimes “Hinesy”),
a driven, Paul Lynde-like efficiency expert. It’s a dual role, really,
because his push-push attitude, as in the opening “Racing with the
Clock,” is supposed to make workers miserable at the Sleep-Tite
Company. He’s also easily angered, causing him to throw knives across
the stage (magically, always a near-miss). At the same time he’s the
major comic relief, glittering in several numbers, such as the duet
with Mabel (Kelly Goyette), “I’ll Never Be Jealous Again.” Varney wins
again in a witty, nearly forgotten number in the second act, “Think of
the Time I Save.”
The number that’s aged rather poorly is the justly forgotten “Her
Is,” linking reliable dancer Gladys with the lothario, married union
leader Prez (Aaron Fried). Talent and great delivery just can’t polish
Cortland Repertory’s formula blends professionalism with intimacy.
Jason Bolen’s set, lighted by Shawn Boyle, reminds us why Babe is a
union grievance officer. And Ethan Deppe’s five-player ensemble makes
the Ross and Adler score sound new. We can only regret they had no more
to give us.
This production runs through July 24. See Times Table for information.