It’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes a show work or not work, especially when there are moments that are good and then others quite awful all in the same production. There can be a lot of talent evident on stage, but that isn’t enough to carry the evening if it isn’t directed properly. And that, unfortunately, is the case with the Weathervane Playhouse production of The Pajama Game, which is a very mixed bag of both delights and coal, tough to take for even the most diverse of palettes.
The Pajama Game, based on the novel 7 1/2 Cents by Richard Bissell about labor disputes at the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory over a raise, premiered on Broadway in 1954 and ran for two and a half years. With music and lyrics by the team of Jerry Ross and Richard Adler (they teamed up the following year for Damn Yankees before Ross’s untimely death at age twenty-nine in 1955) and book co-authored by the legendary George Abbott, The Pajama Game won the Tony Award for Best Musical and went on to be made into a successful film version in 1957 starring Doris Day. “Hey There” was the breakout song from the show that went on to become an often recorded standard, but the score also includes such gems as “I’m Not At All in Love,” “There Once Was a Man,” and “Once a Year Day.”
I saw and enjoyed the Tony-winning 2006 revival of the show starring Harry Connick Jr. and Kelli O’Hara, and I’m a big fan of the energetic film version. It was with fond memories of those productions that I attended the Weathervane Playhouse last night, excited to see a light, frothy musical performed in such an intimate setting. What I got was incredibly uneven, the result of weak direction, miscasting, and a lack of energy.
First, the good; Molly Griggs is an excellent Babe Williams, the grievance committee leader who falls for the new superintendent, Sid Sorokin, played by an iffy Clay Singer. Molly is stern but likable, and hers is the kind of voice that carries from the stage without sounding harsh or unpleasant. She brings chemistry to her scenes with Clay for sure, and she wears her smart ’50s fashions with confidence. In fact, costume designer Cora Delbridge and her assistant Kerbie Minor deserve special recognition for outfitting everyone in period-looking garb that evokes the era without being a caricature of itself. Everyone certainly looks great and moves comfortably as if the clothes they’re wearing were theirs and theirs alone. Everyone sings incredibly well too, especially Clay and Layne Roate as Hines, and it was a joy to see character actress Kayla Walsh hamming it up as Mae after standing out in One Man, Two Guvnors just a few weeks ago. Steve Herbst as Pop is sweet and genuine as well, though he does stand out awkwardly when they put him in ensemble numbers like “Once a Year Day” with all the kids. Barbe Helwig is a delightful Mabel, and her soft shoe in “I’ll Never Be Jealous Again” is adorable.
And now for the bad; Patrick Clements as Prez is handsome, engaging, and masculine in a way that makes him more suited to play Sid, and though Clay puts forth admirable effort as Sid, I see him playing Hines more effectively than the grotesque characterization that Layne Roate is peddling. Hines is the main source of comic relief in the play, but Layne oversells it to the point of being unpleasant and unlikable, and yet his singing voice is truly golden. Mugging isn’t acting, and proper guidance could’ve helped him reign in his performance to elicit genuine laughs verses the rote guffaws I head from a few loud audience members who seemed to be vocal in their support in an effort to let Layne know that they got the point and to move on to the next scene.
And boy did getting to the next scene take time. The overall tempo of the music is too slow, and the pacing within scenes is also off, as if the actors are afraid to step on each other’s lines (it happened anyway once near the end with Molly, and it was the most natural moment in the whole show). The slower music also had an effect on the choreography as it often felt like the performers didn’t have enough to do in their space, but that may also be due to the rushed rehearsal and performance demands on putting on so many shows in a short amount of time. Where was director Valerie Accetta to show Travis Burch (First Helper and ensemble member) and Layne Roate how to act drunk convincingly? They act drunk like people who have never been drunk, staggering around like they’ve been shot more than having had too much to drink.
It’s tough to picture “Steam Heat” performed in any way other than the one designed by Bob Fosse and preserved on film with three dancers in black suits and top hats, but choreographer Tracy Rae Wilson puts forth an admirable effort. EJ King and Brendan Henderson bring energy and pep to the show during their dance that is missing from the rest of the show, though they mostly dance around poor Demi Ahlert as Gladys, another miscast performer who smiles at Layne’s antics as Hines when she should be annoyed and needs additional coaching on how to play drunk.
Though the set pieces that move onto the stage to represent changing locations from Babe’s kitchen to Hernando’s Hideaway are well designed, why is the pajama factory where most of the action takes place so starkly represented? I didn’t expect the rows of clotheslines with pajama tops and bottoms gliding across the stage like I saw on Broadway, but certainly something more than the bland pastel geometric shapes on display here is warranted.
The show itself is very much of its time to be sure, but its charms are still intact, even though I’m sure human resources would have intervened to put a stop to a lot of the events in the story if it took place today (Sid all but sexually harassing Babe; Hines throwing knives about in jealously over Gladys; the factory workers slowing down and issuing defective pajamas, etc.). The songs are performed extremely well, and there is some joy to be found in this near three-hour production, but I left feeling that with a firmer hand and some Red Bull this production could’ve been so much more.
** out of ****
The Pajama Game continues through to July 11th in Newark, OH (around 45 minutes outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://weathervaneplayhouse.org/weathervane-playhouses-2015-summer-season/pajama-game/