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Worker's Playtime

Fab Performances Allow '50s Factory Tale to Deliver the Goods

Bedtime Story: Meg Gillentine in Center Stage's The Pajama Game

By Jack Purdy | Posted 10/24/2001

The Pajama Game

It's snazzy, jazzy, and razzamatazzy, filled with gumption and golly-gee-whiz, let's-put-on-a-show spirit. It's The Pajama Game, Jerry Ross and Richard Adler's 1954 musical with pretensions to semi-serious commentary about labor strife in a Midwest pajama factory. But those pretensions really mask an old-fashioned musical-comedy sensibility that can be summed up thusly: boy meets girl, boys loses girl, boy gets girl.

And this lighthearted romp of a show, which first made Bob Fosse's reputation as a choreographer, completely gets its props in the whimsical production now at Center Stage. And "props" in this case also carries the stage meaning, as Walt Spangler's hugely inventive set is one big prop--a sewing machine, no less. You have to see it to believe it, but by making the setting so symbolic the show keeps "bobbin" along without any sense of boredom, because you can't get over Spangler's superb use of the Head Theatre space.

The production's physical inventiveness and a complete roster of give-it-all-you've-got performances help mask the somewhat prehistoric character of a musical now nearly 50 years old. Theatrical mythology has it that, after Oklahoma! opened in 1943, American musicals were forever changed, with book, songs, and dance now thoroughly woven into a seamless whole that advances the story. But The Pajama Game proves that the old-style musical, in which a lot of the singing and dancing was just tossed in to keep the show moving, was still hanging tough in the '50s. In fact, two of the show's most famous numbers, "Steam Heat" and "Hernando's Hideaway," could be stripped out without harming the plot. Maybe that's why director Irene Lewis, with oodles of help from choreographer Willie Rosario, made both tunes total show-stoppers.

But practically every number here stopped the show on opening night, thanks to one of the most enthusiastic ensembles ever put on a Baltimore stage. The two female leads, in particular, keep The Pajama Game in high gear. As Babe Wilson, head of the factory grievance committee and dedicated union gal, Christianne Tisdale is earthy and exuberant, a semi-tomboy whose melancholy reprise of the show's best-known love song, "Hey There," is wistful and affecting. Meg Gillentine, as Gladys, secretary to the factory owner, has a sultry voice, plus a superb grounding in Bob Fosse's athletic approach to dance. (She toured in the national production of the tribute show Fosse). And as Gladys is the "good/bad" girl--always wanting to run around on her boyfriend, Hines (Robert Dorfman), but never quite getting it done--her role has a comic dimension that Gillentine works to the fullest.

As Sid Sorokin, the factory superintendent who falls for Babe in the management/labor love story, Robert Bartley has blond good looks and a tuneful voice, but his singing lacks the sort of overweening manliness that a 1950s musical calls for. The part of Sid was originated by John Raitt, who with Gordon MacRae and Howard Keel formed a sort of Three Baritones of mid-20th-century American show biz. Perhaps this kind of vocal style simply isn't taught anymore, having vanished when Lerner and Lowe started writing musicals for actors like Rex Harrison and Richard Burton who couldn't actually sing.

The supporting players are all uniformly terrific, with special mention for Michael Brian, as the union leader Prez, and Dorfman, whose Hines is an odd combination of time-study expert and former carnival knife-thrower.

Yes, that's nonsense. But right now, we could all use a lot more nonsense in our lives, and The Pajama Game delivers that in the most entertaining way imaginable.

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