Frisky and Joyful

ATC surprises by turning an old, second-tier musical into a funny, endearing romp

The low point of Arizona Theatre Company's current season, it seemed when it was announced, would be The Pajama Game, a second-tier 1954 musical comedy about sex, which would surely mean more smirking than sophistication.

But guess what? ATC's production turns out to be a fabulously entertaining and endearing romp through a show that has held up much better than anyone could have expected.

The Pajama Game takes place in the Sleep-Tite pajama factory, where workers are preparing to strike, demanding a 7.5-cent raise denied by the miserly CEO. But it's not really a labor-relations show (for that, reach back to the 1930s for Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock); it's all about star-crossed lovers, primarily the relationship between Sid, a new supervisor, and Babe, one of the union leaders.

In this respect, being an old show works in its favor. The Pajama Game dates from an era when musicals were about reasonably ordinary people trying to find love; for the past 35 years or so, most of the biggest musicals have been about people trying to become celebrities, from Jesus Christ Superstar through Fame and A Chorus Line to Evita.

So The Pajama Game is a refreshing return to quasi-reality, and it's propelled by songs that are actually tuneful; a couple of them used to be huge hits: "Hey There" ("... you with the stars in your eyes") and the comic tango "Hernando's Hideaway." It's not really a solid-gold score, but every song has enough individuality, personality and invention to make you believe, at least while you're sitting in the theater, that a musical can't get much better than this.

The plot pretty much falls apart in the second act, but so does the plot of The Nutcracker, yet people still love it. What makes a show durable isn't so much its overall craft as its ability to keep an audience engaged even through its weakest moments. The Pajama Game does this, thanks in part to ATC's expert production.

Let's start with Kevyn Morrow as the hero, Sid the supervisor. Morrow has everything this role needs: good looks, good physique (his last costume is nothing but pajama bottoms), a beautiful croon and an ability to act with and without music behind him. He conveys just the right degree of loneliness in "Hey There," never going so far as to wallow, and in the happier moments--which is most of the show--his delight, as both a character and a performer, is genuine and palpable.

He also happens to be African American, and that brings a whole new richness to Sid's position in the story. This Sid is a smart, capable black man trying to succeed as a manager in the 1950s Midwest. This brings more edge to the alienation he feels as a newcomer to Cedar Rapids, Iowa (expressed in the song "A New Town Is a Blue Town"), and the initial antagonism he feels from the workers and even from his own boss. Still, the race element isn't overplayed; it's an unspoken consideration, but not an Issue. Besides, none of the characters think twice when Sid hooks up with his white love interest, probably not an accurate reflection of what would have happened in 1954 Iowa. Musical comedy does require a fundamental suspension of disbelief, after all.

Said love interest, with the rather demeaning name of Babe, is played with a nice combination of firm backbone and malleable heart by Kelly McCormick. If there's something to criticize about her performance, it's the natural quality of her voice, which is a bit nasal, more like what one hears in character roles rather than leads. Still, it's what she does with the voice that counts most, and it would be hard to beat the ebullience of her participation in "There Once Was a Man." That's the big love duet, by the way, and it's a mark of how imaginative composers Richard Adler and the short-lived Jerry Ross could be that this is a galloping, near-rockabilly number rather than the standard infusion of syrup.

If McCormick is slapped with the label "nasal," it must also be said that the women in the chorus and most of the secondary roles affect a whiny, squeaky sound that perhaps is supposed to be comic, but in short order is simply annoying. They're spirited actors and dancers, though, and relief comes from two of the other women in the cast: Susan J. Jacks as Mabel, the mostly but not irredeemably prim older secretary, and especially the irrepressible Michelle Aravena as another secretary, Gladys. Aravena pretty much owns Act 2, taking control of the proceedings in "Steam Heat" and "Hernando's Hideaway," and having a grand time at it.

Among the men in the cast, Bob Sorenson is immensely likable as Hines, the time-study expert; Joel Newsome does an impressive job of juggling nerdiness and common sense as the union leader (and he's a first-rate comic song-and-dance man, too); and Tony DeBruno, who was in just about every ATC production in the 1980s, makes a welcome and overdue return as the bellicose boss.

Choreographer Patricia Wilcox has tried, for the most part, to go her own way and not seem derivative of the original choreographer, Bob Fosse. Her treatment of the Act 1 numbers is energetic and wholesome, but she can't help retaining some Fosse-style lasciviousness in "Steam Heat" and "Hernando's Hideaway." Too bad that "There Once Was a Man" is relatively undersexualized, whether that's the decision of Wilcox or of director David Ira Goldstein, who otherwise keeps things moving with style, not straining at comic effect.

The pit band is fine (although sometimes the arrangements sound more like the 1920s than the 1950s), and Bill Forrester deserves special praise for his scenic design, all pastels and cool '50s angles and curves.

From beginning to end, ATC's production is exactly what The Pajama Game needs to be: frisky and joyful.

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