Two sides with clashing interests stand apart. A young man and a young woman on the opposing sides fall in love. No, it’s not Romeo and Juliet or the Hatfields and the McCoys. The interests are economic; the time is the 1950s; and the place is a factory in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It’s “The Pajama Game,” which won the 1955 Tony Award for Best Musical and enjoyed a three-year Broadway run. 42nd Street Moon has produced a charming rendition of this underappreciated, yet flawed, property.
Workplace romance is fraught with challenges. Some romances are hidden from view. Some may be characterized as sexual abuse. Some have repercussions at the office, especially if the couple splits.
In “The Pajama Game,” Sid comes to the “hick town” from Chicago to become the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory Supervisor, a management position. He becomes smitten with Babe, a worker who heads the Union Grievance Committee. Workers are seeking a 7 ½ cent per hour raise that competitors have adopted. This specific issue is the barrier between the two getting together. Babe’s token resistance to falling for a man who is not a worker fades, and they become an item. But eventually they split over an incident related to labor protests. However, this is a ‘50s comedy, and it ends pretty predictably on all counts. Meanwhile, we are regaled with middle-American practices and mores of the period, from company picnics to stamp collections.
Along with the expected humorous situations, some of the notable tunes work well in framing the narrative. At the opening on the factory floor, “Racing with the Clock” deals with time-and-motion studies to speed production that became popular during the era. Although the song is chirpy and clever, it wasn’t well projected by the girl’s chorus on opening night.
The dreamy and beautiful “Hey There” is one of the two songs from the show to become a pop standard. It deals with Sid’s ruminations over early rejections by Babe. Ben Jones does a fine acting job as Sid and has a strong and wonderful voice, but in the first rendering of this great song, he didn’t project well either. Fortunately, that was never an issue afterward.
Another crowd pleaser is a duet between Sid and Babe, portrayed by Ashley Garlick, who also brings great acting chops and voice to the stage. The song is ‘There Once Was a Man,” which affirms their love for each other. Its lyrics are totally appropriate and the tune is very catchy, but the strange thing about it is that the musical idiom is Western with fast-traveling patter and great upward-leaping vocal glissandos. It sounds like it comes out of the Frankie Laine songbook, and you anticipate whip cracking and yeehaws at any time.
Act 2 opens with the memorable “Steam Heat,” a song and dance trio. Its lyrics are of the generic “I can’t live without your love” sort that is superfluous. Its context is contrived, and the dance style is wildly different from other dances in “The Pajama Game.” However, this happened to be Bob Fosse’s first show as a choreographer, and the good news is that this number is the first to demonstrate many of his later trademark characteristics – bowler hats and gloves, sloped shoulders, dangling arms, and rhythmic stomps. Led by Gladys, who is portrayed by choreographer Renee DeWeese, the dancing is a real showstopper that is stunningly performed.
“Hernando’s Hideaway” is about an invitation-only club where lovers could meet in secret. Such a refuge probably didn’t exist in small midwestern cities, but it does serve as a suitable venue for a furtive meeting between Sid and Gladys, who is the boss’s secretary and Hines’s (the time-and-motion engineer) girlfriend! The halting tango perfectly fits the ambiance of a candlelit sanctuary. And it is another enjoyable song that became a pop standard.
In addition to the good performances by the lead couple, the other major roles are well acted. Daniel Thomas, the producing company’s Executive Artistic Director, is Prez, the union head, who keeps failing to get the workers’ raise and who also has an eye for Babe. Nick Nakashima receives the most laughs as Hines, who worries about work and has a jealous streak. And Jesse Caldwell bounces to and fro, as he plays both the greedy boss, “Old Man” Hasler and empathetic Pops, Babe’s father, who is trying his best to get her married off.
Through the disarray in story elements, “The Pajama Game” is still charming, and it is fun to see. Production values, including several other dance numbers and skeletal instrumental support, are consistent with 42nd Street Moon standards. Theatergoers who welcome revivals of earlier musicals, a niche that the company serves well, will particularly enjoy this experience.
Although “The Pajama Game” may not come across as an expressly political play, it was written when over 300 entertainers were still blacklisted as a result of House Un-American Activities Committee investigations. The central clash is certainly a classic between capital and labor. “Old Man” Hasler, the factory head, is played unsympathetically for his dishonesty and for his rigid rejection of a workers’ raise when the factory is doing extremely well. Further, he repeatedly refers to anyone who supports the raise or acts to slow production as a communist. This is a clear jab by the musical’s creative team at right-wingers who make flagrant, unfounded accusations and reject the notion that those outside their fraternity deserve rights and comforts. Sadly, this scapegoating philosophy and the practice of pejorative and unjustified labeling has had a troubling resurgence in today’s world.
“The Pajama Game” with music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell, and produced by 42nd Street Moon, plays at the Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco, CA through June 19, 2022.