REVIEW: "The Pajama Game" – Claire Trevor Theatre, UCI
“...Sewing tables, Bouffants, Poodle Cuts, Circle Skirts, Bullet Bras, Waist Knickers and Silk Pajamas– All the Ingredients for High Entertainment.”
“The Pajama Game,” a musical based on the Eisenhower-era novel, "71/2 Cents," by Richard Bissell, is still, even after six and a half decades, a joy to behold – considered one of the most reliable musical comedies ever written.
The hit-drenched score by the team of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (“Damn Yankees”) is backed by an unsullied book from George Abbot and Richard Bissell, whose genius is validated with three Tony Awards, including one for Best Musical. The show became one of the decade's biggest hits, with more than 1,000 performances, and spinning off single hits for the popular "Hey There," and "Hernando's Hideaway.” What a soul-satisfying thrill it is to see it performed with flawless Broadway-level panache on the Claire Trevor stage. Especially when you have UCI’s brand of talent on hand, budding artists who seem to be tailor-made for the roles. Playing for one week only, June 1st-8th, four superb performances remain after today.
Adler and Ross’s “The Pajama Game” may sound like the perfect embodiment of Hollywood postwar sensibilities, but while it was an ideal film vehicle for Doris Day “back in the Day,” the stage version is more resilient, and the whipcrack wit and pace of Don Hill’s current production in Irvine scotches any idea this is a museum piece.
Between Director Hill’s smooth stagecrafting and Allison Eversoll’s simple but effective choreography, they bring it all together with style and waggishness – two things that any musical could use a lot more of! Lex Leigh and his 16-piece orchestra also work their magic, filling our ears and hearts with the show’s timeless orchestrations. It could have literally been a cast recording…the music was that incredible.
So, with fat cat managers cooking the books, robotic middlemen preaching to workers about the creed of efficiency, and union shakedowns looming, this folklore of American capitalism is a trip back in history, accompanied by glorious, exuberant color and sound. Set in early 50’s America (ice boxes, soda fountains, tailfins), it strikes plenty of sparks in the twenty-first-century.
We begin on the floor of the Sleep Tite Pajama factory. Sewing machines are whirring, the time and motion man is pacing, and the gutsy chorus of factory women is delivering the opening number “Racing With the Clock” as they frantically stitch sleepwear. “I can tell you precisely per second how many stitches go into a pair of pajamas,” declares Isaiah Tadros, as prickly manager Hines – but he’s not the only one counting. The workers want a seven and a half cent raise and they’ll stop at nothing to get it!
The battle lines seem fairly straightforward, but then handsome Sid Sorokin, the new factory superintendent, has his first encounter with Babe Williams, the feisty, tough-talking head of the union grievance committee. Eriel Milan Brown is perfection as Babe, and clearly has a blast in the role, making the most of every comic and romantic juncture. The moment she belts “I’m Not At All in Love,” and dances with joyous abandon during “Once-a-Year-Day,” we all know what’s coming – the only real suspense in this musical is in the waistband elastic of the pajama trousers – and sure enough, the factory picnic sees their romance blossom.
Of course, it helps to have a co-star who is equally adept with this kind of material. And there is no other leading man finer to fit the part than BFA Max DeLoach, possessing both voice and sheer sex appeal. Mr. DeLoach is one of the most distinctive performers in the area with an exceptional gift for inhabiting any character he approaches. He smolders through the lovely "Hey There," bursting into full roar when he and Ms. Brown share the show-stopping "There Once Was a Man." And the two of them look so rousingly comfortable sharing one set of pajamas in the finale that I thought management might be providing backstage security. Overall, these two pros sent us to musical comedy heaven.
But, the tomboyish, headstrong Babe is no simpering 1950s heroine. She and Sid make an ardent courting couple, the Beatrice and Benedick of pajama manufacturing – in complete adoration of one another, yet in merry warfare. The explosive country and western-fused, “There Once Was a Man,” is reminiscent of, “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better,” in an “Annie Get Your Gun” battle of wits and one-upmanship. One of the most popular songs in the show, it becomes a spirited declaration of equality, sung with home-fried flavor.
Pajama Game's entire multitude of comic supporting roles, in fact, are all in capable hands. Mr. Tadros plays the cartoonish time study man, Hines, with refreshing understatement, and Veronica Renner is Gladys, the secretary who inspires Hines to wild fits of jealousy. Aaron James Miller, as the hapless, philandering union head, Prez, scores laughs as he attempts to seduce Gladys, as she struts up a storm and perfectly channels a ditzy blonde Marilyn Monroe.
Olivia Pech’s fabulously bolshy Mabel, whose comic facial expressions and dancing steal every scene she’s in, is charming as a mother hen secretary who gets her chance to be a starlet in the Fred-and-Ginger-inspired number “I’ll Never be Jealous Again.” Zoe Godfrey-Grinage’s defiant Mae was a definite stand-out, and David Bradbury is a hoot as Hasler, the blustering factory president.
As for the ensemble factory workers, Ms. Eversoll’s skirt-whirling choreography effectively highlights a cathartic release of personality once released from the confines of repetitive manual labor, particularly in the aforementioned “Once-a-Year-Day” sequence where barriers between management and workers are supposedly broken down, but tensions still simmer (analogous to “The Farmer and the Cowman” in “Oklahoma”).
Yet, where UCI’s production delights the senses is not just in the dazzlingly dynamic choreography, but in the comically gritty detail of the characterization. When Ms. Brown’s Babe picks up an onion on her first date with Mr. DeLoach’s Sid, you feel she’s just as likely to use it as a weapon as for an omelette. And later, in the parallel comedic love story – which features Hines’s green-eyed obsession with Veronica Renner’s sizzling Gladys – lethal weapons are employed in a somewhat humorous way. His drowning of his sorrows in a drunken knife-throwing act is just one of the many tangential themes that spice this musical.
In the second half, Abbott and Bissell's script speeds up the story, knitting up the hanging loose ends so fast, you'd think they'd done it with a twist tie. Two of the best songs in the show are in act two, which Adler and Ross wrote in only two days, opening the act to a slinky "Steam Heat," featuring Gladys, Bill (Shahil Patel) and Charlie (Patrick Maravilla).
The song, featuring Fosse's minimalist but riveting dance moves, doesn’t complement the storyline of a labor dispute, but instead manifests as an overt song-and-dance number featured as the "entertainment portion" of a union rally with Gladys again as lead performer. "Steam Heat," which would make anyone’s temperature rise, eventually went on to be recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, Liza Minnelli and The Pointer Sisters, also becoming a staple of Shirley MacLaine's nightclub act, as well as a Top Ten hit for Patti Page as released by Mercury Records.
“Hernando’s Hideaway” features the entire company in a song you will be humming all the way home. In this scene, Sid, now convinced that Babe's championship of the union is justified, takes Gladys out for the evening to a night club, Hernando's Hideaway, intent on wheedling the key to the company's books from her on a hunch that the company president is embezzling. After a magnificent tango dance at the club, Sid discovers that the boss, Hasler, has already tacked on the extra seven and one-half cents to the production cost, but has kept all the extra profits for himself. The song, “Hernando’s Hideaway,” sets the mood and has also been recorded by scores of other entertainers, including Harry Connick Jr., The Everly Brothers and The Ventures.
Additional supporting players include Meliza Gutierrez as Rita, Anya Johnston as Doris, Edgar Khatchatrian as Pop, McKay Mangum as Max. Francesca Menegon plays Coleen, Zain Patel is Joe and the Waiter, Spencer Vicente Peterson is Larry and Justine Rafael plays Sandra. Tori Stamm is Virginia, Zoie Tannous is Brenda and Carly Tilson-Lumetta plays Poopsie. Alyssa Corella is Female Swing, Ernest Figuera is Male Swing, and Patrick Maravilla also is Dance Captain. Marcy Froehlich plays the Voice of Sleep Tite Management.
Pit musicians include Rory Mazzela, David Catalan, Will Vargas and Phil Krawzak on Reeds, Rich Chasin and Brad Black on Trumpet and Shelly Suminski and Steve Hughes on Trombone. Guitar is by Jeff Askew, Drums/Percussion is Matt Ordaz, Piano is by Leslie Wickham and Violin 1 is Jamie Saunders. Violin 2 is Mary Keating, Viola is Nolan Livesay, Cello is Greg Adamson, and Bass is Carlos Rivera.
Artistic Director is also Don Hill, Scenic Design is by Brandon PT Davis, Costume Design is by Sarah Fulford, Lighting is by Natori Cummings-Haynes, Sound Design is by Ningru Guo, Stage Manager is Bradley Zipser and Dramaturg is Amy Shine.
A lighthearted adventure of industrial folklore,“The Pajama Game” is bright, brassy and jubilantly sassy, cleverly combining boy-meets-girl with capital-versus-labor. Sid and Babe find their budding love affair derailed by an impending strike and a political standoff, but as they work through the tension, they find in the end that compromise not only improves their financial outlook, but also helps their romantic prospects. Thankfully there’s no foresight of their jobs being outsourced to cheaper labor within the next few decades!
“The Pajama Game,” now playing at UCI’s Claire Trevor Theatre through June 8th, continues this Thursday and Friday at 8pm and Saturday at 2pm and 8pm. Tickets may be purchased online at http://www.arts.uci.edu/event/pajama-game , but going quite fast! This show has the ultimate recommendation!