Sunday, October 29, 2017

Arena's Pajama Game

A lecturer on Broadway musicals recently observed that Broadway wasn't sure about The Pajama Game when the original production was coming to town in 1954. No one could recall a musical focused on labor relations. With songs including "Hey There," "Hernando's Hideaway," and "There Once Was a Man," the show ran for more than two years and has been revived over the years.

Last night at D.C.'s Arena Stage, the production was good, with strong voices and excellent dancers. Minor complaint for me was the high volume of the obvious amplification: not only was it annoying but it shows that in the years since the musical stage has introduced amplification, there now is no shame whatsoever in making it obvious. The orchestra, mostly hidden under the stage-in-the-round, was too loud as well.

But more important, does the show hold up? It was based on a novel by Richard Bissell called 7 1/2 Cents, and prepared for Broadway by some real pros--George Abbott and Jerome Robbins directing, Bob Fosse was choreographer, John Raitt--fresh from Carousel--was the male lead, paired with the Broadway regular, Janis Paige, and the veteran trouper Eddie Foy Jr. in the "older man" role of the time-study guy, Hines, who even gets to tap dance. Among the dance corps were the young Peter Gennaro and yes, Shirley MacLaine.

The show was stolen, however, by the great dancer Carol Haney, and seeing how her part was nicely played last night by Nancy Anderson, I can see how the part lends itself to over-the-top performances. As an added lagniappe, Donna McKechnie, the original Cassie on Broadway in A Chorus Line, turned in a fine showing in a supporting dramatic role.

But does the show hold up? Mostly. The show is not at all a propaganda vehicle for the labor movement, much as that movement might need one now. There are some outdated lines and characterizations but on the whole, the show is still fun and modestly meaningful. There are more than the usual improbabilities in some of the romantic development, but again, you get more than two hours (2 1/2 hours running time) of good singing and dancing, and yes, even a soupcon of acting.

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