The supreme pleasure of the revival of The Pajama Game at the American Airlines Theatre is its almost unbeatable score. The popular 1954 show itself is no Guys and Dolls, but its music and lyrics, by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, are a perfect example of the joys of the all-American musical comedy at its best.
It helps a lot that an artist as fine as Harry Connick Jr. can make a lyric sound as freshly minted as he does with a melting standard like “Hey There” or the lesser-known bluesiness of “A New Town Is a Blue Town.” Mr. Connick, a nostalgic thowback to the age of Sinatra, is making his Broadway debut in a winning partnership with Kelli O’Hara, and if ever Guys and Dolls should be revived again any time soon, he’s your Sky Masterson.
By happy coincidence, when The Pajama Game was but a union dispute in the eyes of its creators, George Abbott and Richard Bissell, it was offered to Frank Loesser (the major songwriter who wrote the classic Guys and Dolls, How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and the music drama The Most Happy Fella). But Loesser passed up the opportunity to compose The Pajama Game. Perhaps a musical about labor relations in the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory didn’t appeal to him.
Of all the crazy plots in all the musical comedies in all the world, this one takes the strudel. Call it “The Seven and a Half Cent Solution.” The Pajama Game actually revolves around a pajama-factory strike, or go-slow, for a seven-and-a-half-cent raise. How nostalgic can we get? Sid (Harry Connick Jr.), the new management man, is therefore in dispute with Babe (Kelli O’Hara), the head of the grievance committee. But they also fall madly in love. Oops!
It was Frank Loesser who recommended his protégés, Adler and Ross of Tin Pan Alley, to write The Pajama Game. It was their first musical. Adler was the son of a concert pianist; Ross began in showbiz as the juvenile lead in Yiddish theater. They created another major Broadway hit in 1955 with Damn Yankees, but their immensely gifted partnership ended when Ross died suddenly of leukemia, age 29. They were popular poets, like the best of them.
You on that high-flying cloud.
Though she won’t throw a crumb to you,
You think someday
She’ll come to you.
Better forget her ….
Adler and Ross are part of that lost, lucky golden age of the American musical that embraced romantic ballads, a world of a certain innocence and charm. Seeing one of the last performances of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Gothic-horror musical The Woman in White recently was to witness the wheezing end of another era. The bloated high seriousness of the Lloyd Webber pseudo-opera is merely high camp. The sturm und drang of the one endlessly reprised big song was startlingly interchangeable with the parodied Lloyd Webber song in Spamalot. But it was the bewildering British colonization of Broadway that set back the American musical for more than a generation.
What has happened since? An invasion of puppets and post-Sondheimean irony, Disney and Elton John. Coming soon: Phil Collins with Tarzan the musical. Elton and Phil, the new Johnny One-Note saviors of Broadway. If they possessed any wit, we might forgive them.
The Adler-Ross “Hey There” famously has its romantic hero singing into a dictaphone, which he plays back and turns into a wistful duet. If we want to get fancy about it—and we do—the scene prefigures the use of the tape recorder in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. But then, their “I’m Not at All in Love” prefigured Sondheim’s bitter-sweetness; the jubilant “Once a Year Day” could be Rodgers and Hammerstein; “Steam Heat” introduced sex into musical comedy; and “Hernando’s Hideaway” parodied the art of the tango far, far better than Dancing With the Stars.
I know a dark secluded place,
A place where no one knows your face.
A glass of wine, a fast embrace,
It’s called Hernando’s Hideaway!
Adler and Ross, like Comden and Green, like the lost era of American musical-comedy specialists, convey the infectious impression that musicals can be fun to write and fun to attend. Kathleen Marshall’s new production of The Pajama Game works best when the cast soars choreographically in the brilliant (and funny) take on the Hernando’s Hideaway scene, with Mr. Connick at its jazzy center on piano. Though the show was originally co-directed by Jerome Robbins with Mr. Abbott, Robbins left the choreography mostly to a newcomer, Bob Fosse. But Ms. Marshall has nodded too much in Fosse’s arch direction in the usually show-stopping “Steam Heat.” In a rare lapse, her newish version lacks both steam and heat.
I’m uncertain why “Book Revisions for this Production by Peter Ackerman”—as the billing goes—were necessary. Little jokes about McCarthyism and the strike in On the Waterfront are precisely the kind of knowing ironies that have no place in the musical age of innocence. But these are inconsequential complaints. The Pajama Game makes a very agreeable evening of Broadway nostalgia—for a change! Mr. Connick and Ms. O’Hara (of The Light in the Piazza) shine together, though the good-humored Mr. Connick sometimes dances a bit stiffly, like Bob the Builder. I enjoyed the relaxed charm of Michael McKean’s performance and the shameless knockabout comedy of Megan Lawrence. But you’ll appreciate the Richard Adler and Jerry Ross score, for sure. I think. As the great love song goes:
Will you take this advice I hand you like a brother
Or am I not seeing things too clear
Are you just too far gone to hear?
Is it all going in one ear
And out the other?
The Swell Kate Forbes
It’s a curious thing that Shakespeare’s women are always marrying dopes. His women are invariably brighter than the men they fall for, but there’s no heroine in all the plays as foolish in love as the smitten Helena. Hence the ironically entitled All’s Well That Ends Well. But, though the Theatre for a New Audience production of the problem play at the Duke on 42nd Street has more than a few problems, Kate Forbes’ Helena is not one of them. Ms. Forbes is giving one of the finest Shakespeare performances you could wish to see.
She’s a wonderful actress in every way—all the better, from my point of view, for being one I haven’t seen before. Playing the besotted heroine of All’s Well creates its own near-insurmountable challenges. Ms. Forbes must convince us that Helena, the first woman doctor—it’s often claimed—in all dramatic literature, would fall for a worthless man like Bertram. It amounts to Shakespeare’s sick joke on the institution of marriage. The object of Helena’s obsessive desire has no redeeming qualities whatsoever.
The quite rarely produced play is about irrational romantic love, the manly humiliation of women and that under-used thing, honor. In the “mingled yarn” of our lives, Helena can cure grave illnesses, but not her mad love for a man who’s about as empty-headed as Brad Pitt:
Carries no favour in’t but Bertram’s.
I am undone; there is no living, none,
If Bertram be away ….
Ms. Forbes as the undone Helena pulls off a miracle of acting. She is both intelligence personified and the epitome of blind love. Her lyricism is utterly natural and unforced. She’s thoroughly at home in Shakespeare, praise be. She is “simply the thing she is.” Which is the best.
Now, sorry to say, if only the company Ms. Forbes keeps were her equal. For we would then have a production whose greatness is undeniable. The experienced director, Darko Tresnjak, has given us a provincial All’s Well that is simultaneously too ponderous and too kitschy, with varying performances and a confining, cheap set on a stage without depth. It is “good and ill together,” neither fish nor fowl. But the unexpected, lovely contribution of Ms. Forbes almost saves the day, and many a day.
Follow John Heilpern via RSS.