At Arena Stage: ‘The Pajama Game,’ A Romp Back In Time

If you’re in the mood for a nostalgic musical or fun-for-the-whole-family cross-generational holiday outing, the revival of 1954 Tony Award Winner for Best Musical The Pajama Gameat the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, is the ticket for you.

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Based on the 1953 novel 7½ Cents by Richard Bissell (music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Jones), The Pajama Game spins a yarn of love and labor troubles in an Iowa sleepwear factory where workers led by union leader Prez (played with hilarious lecherous camp by Blakely Slaybaugh) campaign for a 7½ cent raise, while factory owner Hasler (played by Edward Gero, channeling his best Eugene Levy) agitates for patience and pajamas apace. In the midst of conflict, love blossoms and fizzles and blossoms again between Grievance Committee Leader Babe Williams (Britney Coleman), and new Factory Superintendent Sid Sorokin (Tim Rogan).

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The lead couple are effervescent. Rogan’s vocals are simply stupendous, outshone only by his jaw dropping physique, showcased in his shirtless finale. Feisty Coleman is his perfect match. They shine in twangy “There Once Was A Man.” The leads are buttressed by an outstanding supporting cast. Eddie Korbich proves the master of song and tap in “Think of the Time I Save.” As ditzy secretary Gladys, Nancy Anderson makes the most of her moments, sizzling in “Steam Heat” and drunkenly stumbling from too much “Hernando’s Hideaway.” And Slaybaugh, well, slays as acrobatically lecherous not-so-bad cad in “Her Is.”

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Despite the fantastic singing, the best parts of Pajama Game are non-verbal –energetic dance numbers, and pitch perfect scenes. Parker Esse’s dynamite choreography pays homage to Bob Fosse’s original, which big, swirling enselble numbers. The twelve-piece orchestra conducted by James Cunningham keeps dancers jumping and toes tapping. James Noone’s vintage set is spare but succinct, transporting the audience to I Love Lucy days. And best of all, Alejo Vietti’s costumes are vintage perfection. I wanted every single one. Every. Single. One.

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Molly Smith is one of the most thoughtful curators in the business, so her unironic inclusion of The Pajama Game was a little baffling among an otherwise provocative season. But with the holidays looming and the headlines glooming, perhaps she sensed that we all just needed a little relief. Thankfully, Smith and director Alan Paul don’t fall into the trap of trying to drag The Pajama Game into present-day political correctness, but offer the old fashioned script unapologetically in all its sexist corniness. After all, casual workplace sexism and fighting for fare wages aren’t really such dated concepts, after all, are they?

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Nods to nostalgia abound. Mae (played with vintage spunk by Gabi Stapula) is an almost distracting dead ringer for Shirley Maclaine, who was a chorus-girl and understudy for Carol Haney’s Gladys the original Broadway production. Haney’s wrenched ankle put Maclaine onstage the same night Hollywood Producer Hal Willis came to see the show, and movie history was made. In another nod to bygone Broadway, Mabel was played by Donna McKechnie, the 1976 Best Actress Tony Award winner for her role as Cassie in the musical A Chorus Line.

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So take a romp back in time – catch The Pajama Game at Arena Stage before it’s in the past.

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The Pajama Game is playing at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater through December 24, 2017 (1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington DC 20024). Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one 15 minute intermission. For information or tickets call 202-488-3300 or click here.

Photo credit: Margot Schulman

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