The Pajama Game

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Wednesday March 11, 2015

 Jillian Butler and the ensemble in the Boston Conservatory of Music's production of "The Pajama Game"
Jillian Butler and the ensemble in the Boston Conservatory of Music's production of "The Pajama Game"  (Source:Eric Antiniou)

"That's the most relevant show I've seen in a long, long time," said a woman leaving the spirited production of "The Pajama Game" at the Boston Conservatory of Music this past Sunday. What? "The Pajama Game?" - that breezy musical from Eisenhower's days as President?

Perhaps she was exaggerating a bit, but in a time when unions are vilified by ambitious politicians and income inequality is a dispiriting cable news meme that will likely play in the upcoming 2016 elections, the 7½ cent raise these characters sing about hits close to home.

Not to suggest that this evergreen show - a solid hit in 1954, followed by summer stock, a film version and numerous revivals - is some Brechtian take on labor and management. (Seek out "The Cradle With Rock" for that.) "The Pajama Game" is a sweetheart of a show that uses the battle between labor and management in a Midwestern pajama factory as a backdrop. This schism is cleverly mirrored in the show's central romance between Sid Sorokin, a brash factory foreman, and Babe Williams, a union rep. Initially she's attracted to him; but is reluctant to a relationship because he's management and she's labor, a division that seems positively quaint in today's workplace.

What's also quaint are the outdated sexist attitudes that are inherent in the script (written by George Abbott and Richard Bissell from his novel "7½ Cents"). Men speak to women in ways that would find them in Human Resources today. To her credit, director Laura Marie Duncan mitigates such talk and actions without excising them altogether. This isn't a revised "Pajama Game" with PC attitudes. It is, sexist warts and all, the show as it was written six decades ago.

That is a sweet, unprepossessing show with a cast of cartoonish characters, great score and numerous opportunities for dancing. Take the second act opening - for no reason whatsoever, three union workers (led by the irrepressible Kelly Berman, a talent to watch) entertain a union meeting with "Steam Heat," a song and staging memorable as what may be the first instance of what's been defined as Bob Fosse's style in musical theater history. (He choreographed the original and can be seen dancing in it in the film version.) The cocked hat, the arched body, the slithering style are all present in choreographer Michelle Chassé's Fosse homage made vitally entertaining by Berman and her two athletic partners (alas, uncredited in the program).

A scene from "The Pajama Game"
A scene from "The Pajama Game"  (Source: Eric Antiniou)

"Steam Heat" is just one of the great songs in this ingratiating score, by the team of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross. Their tenure on Broadway was relatively brief - only the follow-up hit "Damn Yankees" makes up their roster. (Ross died in 1955 at the age of 29.) But they remain astute tunesmiths and fill this score with a series of catchy songs with a pop feel from the period. One - "Hey There" - even became a #1 hit; though in the show is a clever duet that Sid has with himself through the use of his dictaphone.

Dictaphone? What's that, you may wonder. Today he'd be singing into his iPhone, then remixing it with some app; but I digress - much of the charm of Duncan's production comes with its evocation of the Eisenhower era working class life. Both Sid and Babe are ambitious partisans of their respective views; but are willing to compromise. Perhaps the show's denouement comes a bit easily and the bruised feeling heal rather quickly; but this is what was known as a George Abbott show - fast, breezy, funny - a lighter than air diversion tenuously rooted in reality.

The Boston Conservatory production had elements than many of the professional companies in town should envy: a handsome, functional unit set (by Cristina Todesco) that suggested the Sleep-Tite Factory while giving ample room for dance; a first-rate orchestra playing what appear to be original orchestrations (when was the last time you've heard that in the theater?); a brightly scrubbed cast (no facial hair on this stage) that evoke the musical's time period, abetted by Elisabetta Polito's smart costumes. (Steven Ladd Jones was the production's musical director, while Peter Mansfield conducted the pit band.)

As Sid, Dallyn Vail Bayles has a superb baritone and stolid, leading man looks and Jillian Butler played and sung the feisty Babe to perfection. They had chemistry in the show's two key romantic duets - the Frank Loesser-inspired "Small Talk" and the hoedownish "There Once Was a Man;" and both got to shine with "Hey There," in his case in his first act duet with himself, and, in hers, with a touching second act reprise when the romance is on the rocks.

The supporting comedy roles were all delightfully handled. Richard Wayne played the floor foreman with broad comic touch that fitted this role; Alexa Lebersfeld shined as the secretary to head honcho Hasler, played with buffoonish relish by Christopher J. King. Best of all was Berman who brought a zany energy to Gladys - a scene stealing role if there ever was one that she makes the most of, especially when dancing to Chassé's ample and well-integrated choreography. It's too bad that this joyous production only ran one weekend, but those who were lucky enough to see it will likely have the songs playing in their internal iPod for days to come.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].