`Pajama Game' is big fun

Review: Center Stage has just the right touch with this lighthearted '50s musical.

October 18, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The Pajama Game may be a show about a labor dispute, but most of all, it's sheer fun, and Center Stage's exuberant production couldn't have come at a better time.

Set in a Midwestern factory town in the 1950s, this infrequently revived 1954 musical (score by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell) ultimately is about Americans, both labor and management, pulling together for the greater good.

French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard described it as "the first left-wing operetta," and the character of Hines, the pajama factory's "time-study man," introduces the show as "a very serious drama." But Hines' tongue is planted firmly in his cheek.

The Pajama Game basically is a love story about two seeming adversaries - Babe, head of the union's grievance committee, and Sid, the factory's new superintendent. It's a case of opposites attracting, and Christianne Tisdale's Babe and Robert Bartley's Sid make an adorable pair. Proclaiming in song, "I'm Not at All in Love," Tisdale raises her fist in emphasis, but when Sid accidentally bumps into her, the encounter leaves her woozy.

Babe and Sid are grown-ups, but the musical they inhabit hails from a more innocent time, and director Irene Lewis' production - and particularly Willie Rosario's choreography and designer Walt Spangler's set - treats the Sleep Tite pajama factory as equal parts playground and plant.

Spangler's unconventional set covers the Head Theater's elongated thrust stage with an enormous swath of striped pajama fabric (actually laminated wood) that extends from a raised bolt at the back, passing under a huge sewing machine needle and presser foot, and ending, with upturned corners, in front of the first row of seats. The needle, which actually moves up and down at various times, is always there. When Sid first kisses Babe, they are leaning against it. Later on, when she begins to cook him a meal in her kitchen, she takes the dishes out of a drawer on the shank of the presser foot.

The set suggests that the workers are trapped in a giant sewing machine. But while Sleep Tite may be all-encompassing, it also can be fun-filled. This feeling is exemplified by the company picnic scene, when a jumbo watermelon slice descends and the cast covers the stage (and eventually themselves) with an oversized red-and-white checked tablecloth. Work isn't merely these characters' livelihood, it's their life.

A steeply sloped stage presents considerable choreographic challenges, but Rosario uses it to playful advantage. This is especially evident in "Steam Heat." It's a number indelibly identified with the musical's original choreographer, Bob Fosse, and though Rosario's interpretation won't make you forget the original, he has wisely re-envisioned it.

As the star of "Steam Heat," Meg Gillentine - the sprightly, proficient dancer who plays the boss' secretary - appears accompanied by two male sidekicks, each sheathed head-to-toe in a red, steam pipe-like tube. At the end of the number, all three slide down the set's rear ramp, while seated in their red tubes.

Lewis' entire production is characterized by a playful spirit. Just watch Robert Dorfman, as Hines, the efficiency expert, futilely struggling to get back into his trousers after modeling a pair of Sleep Tite pajama bottoms. As Babe, Tisdale is every bit as "peppy and full of spunk" as the character is described; her Babe clearly is besotted with Bartley's smooth Sid (although Bartley is not as accomplished a singer as his co-star). Further amusing interplay comes from the romantic shenanigans of Michael Brian as the libidinous union president and rotund Katie Harvey as his extra-strong extra-marital fling.

Music director Milton Granger gets a brisk, brassy sound from his six-member onstage band, using Sean Patrick Flahaven's new orchestrations, which do ample justice to such standards as "Hey There" and "Hernando's Hideaway."

In its nearly four-decade history, Center Stage has mounted only one other classic American musical - its sparkling 1985 She Loves Me. Musicals may seem like lightweight fare for a serious-minded regional theater, but they can be as tricky as Shakespeare and as open to re-interpretation. Not only does Center Stage have a knack for this sort of thing, but there's probably no better show than The Pajama Game to prove that life shouldn't be all work and no play.

The Pajama Game

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. most Sundays; 2 p.m. Sundays, most Saturdays. Through Dec. 2

Tickets: $30-$50

Call: 410-332-0033

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