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The Pajama Game
by Rob Kendt

©2006 Joan Marcus
Harry Connick Jr. & Kelli O'Hara in The Pajama Game
Mindless fun isn't as easy to pull off as it looks, and that's just as it should be; seeming effortlessness, after all, is the defining quality of good escapist entertainment. The best news about Kathleen Marshall's eager, puppyish new revival of the 1954 musical The Pajama Game is that the old-fangled machinery of Broadway musicals still purrs along just fine. David Chase's pit band sounds terrific, the dancers are spry and spunky, the singing is lovely, Derek McLane's sets are sparkling and smart. Even the casting of crooner Harry Connick Jr., in his Broadway debut, fits this sense of continuity with the past. Watching Connick, dressed in Martin Pakledinaz's stylish retro threads and hitting his leading-man marks without a trace of irony, only seals our feeling that the American Airlines Theatre has for a moment become a time machine.

Or a tourbus. The show's generic professionalism ultimately makes this starched and pressed Pajama Game resemble a road-show museum of the mid-century American musical, with players who know all the old moves but not what they signify. The fault can't be laid entirely at the feet of Marshall or the Roundabout Theatre, except insofar as they failed to recognize the irredeemable flimsiness of George Abbott's libretto, or to realize that Richard Adler and Jerry Ross's score has a few choice bits of ear candy and a bunch of milky duds. The Pajama Game is exactly the sort of charming artifact, in other words, for which the Encores! series was created.

It might seem that way in part because Connick, for one, is much more at home with his role's vocal demands than its acting requirements. But what are those acting requirements, actually? As Sid, a cocky foreman who falls for his factory's union leader, Babe (Kelli O'Hara), Connick is asked for two colors--brooding and frisky--and he delivers both, more or less, with the unshaded bluntness of the green actor.

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This guilelessness comes off better in the lighter moments than the dark ones. When the mostly non-dancing Connick gamely does the twist, or joins O'Hara for the galloping hoedown "There Once Was a Man," his unaffected joy is infectious. But with his first two soliloquys, "A New Town Is a Blue Town" and "Hey There," Connick's earnestness is almost laughably disproportionate. And when his scenes aren't comic or light-romantic, watch out. "Sleep tight!" he tells Babe in one kiss-off exit; Connick says it with such forbidding finality that we almost don't get that Sid is punning on the name of their workplace, the Sleep-Tite pajama factory.

This excess of seriousness, though, makes Connick a natural straight man--a role he plays drolly opposite Megan Lawrence, as the boss's hyperventilating secretary. After a bout of well-tempered flirting, these two go on to headline the show-stopping "Hernando's Hideaway," a lounge-lizard fiesta that features a clattering piano solo by Connick and an invigorating, hard-swinging finale.

©2006 Joan Marcus
Roz Ryan & Michael McKean in The Pajama Game
O'Hara cuts a lovely period silhouette and is in fine voice, but what her thinly conceived role demands is personality, not interpretive sensitivity. Michael McKean is such an affable, mildly rumpled presence that it may not occur to us right away how woefully miscast he is as a short-fused, anal-retentive flunky. Roz Ryan makes a lot more of her secretary's role than should be legal, and thank God for her. As a pair of geeky lovers, Peter Benson and Joyce Chittick admirably tear through the show's ripest corn, including the dreadful song "Her Is."

Chittick later sheds her tomboy's overalls for the revealing fishnets and bowler of "Steam Heat," the sassy scorcher whose purported appearance at a Midwestern union meeting is among the more exotic interpolations in musical theater history. Marshall here musters a passable and utterly unsurprising Fosse pastiche, which only serves to remind us--as does too much of this neatly stacked Pajama Game--of other, better shows. Connick and O'Hara in Guys and Dolls, anyone?

The Pajama Game
Book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell
Music & Lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross
Directed and Choreographed by Kathleen Marshall
American Airlines Theatre

 
Print This Story / Send the Story to a Friend / 2/23/2006 4:11:00 PM

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