Despite its hitting the right notes, ATC's The Pajama Game seems, oh, ho hum

I needn't have worked very hard this week reviewing the show I saw, because the noisy dame who sat in front of me critiqued every musical number, every punch line in Arizona Theatre Company's The Pajama Game. "That was good!" she bellowed to her seatmate after the cast busted moves doing "Hernando's Hideaway"; "He's so comical!" she hollered after Bob Sorenson did a routine that involved putting on a pair of pants funny. I just wrote down everything Noisy Dame shouted, then came home.

But I couldn't help but think, once I got back to my place, that while Noisy wasn't necessarily mistaken, she was, perhaps, too easily pleased. There's nothing much to carp about where this Pajama Game is concerned — the music is beautifully played and nicely sung; the choreography is clever; the comic bits are pleasant enough — but after seeing ATC's production, I felt the same way I did after I saw the show listed in its season brochure last year: Ho hum.

The Pajama Game has been around since 1954, when it became the latest in a long string of George Abbott's Broadway hits. Despite the fact that its story is very much mired in the middle of the last century, when musicals were most often about ordinary people doing ordinary things (in this case, working in a pajama-sewing factory whose workers are about to go on strike), Pajama Game has been revived twice. Its successful 2006 Broadway revival has led to its renewed popularity with professional companies, even though it's ultimately little more than a pleasant, rather dated trifle, one that's been a staple of community theaters and junior college companies for half a century.

McCormick and Morrow sing in civvies.
McCormick and Morrow sing in civvies.

Details

The Pajama Game continues through January 26 at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe St. Call 602-256-6899.

As ever, ATC and artistic director David Ira Goldstein, who directed this production, have pulled out all the stops. The set is a gorgeous, two-tiered pastiche of aqua and pink, and Lindsay W. Davis' costumes are an homage to all that was smart and fun about '50s fashion. Goldstein brings sparkle and pizzazz to even expository scenes, and his affection for this show is splashed so big over this production that it's easy to overlook its teeny story about striking mill workers and interoffice romance.

Goldstein has made a peculiar choice with his male lead, however. I'm all for color-blind casting, especially when it involves a performer as beguiling as Kevyn Morrow, the African-American actor who portrays Sid Sorokin, the new Sleep Tite bossman. But Goldstein has blundered in asking us to believe that a black man dating a white woman in 1954 Iowa would go as unnoticed as it does by the denizens of this Pajama Game. And, okay, so all musical comedy demands a suspension of disbelief — real people, after all, don't burst into fully orchestrated and choreographed musical numbers every 15 minutes — but this is a misstep that throws the whole proceedings off.

Which isn't to say that Morrow isn't superb here. His singing voice is lovely (although his upper register isn't so strong that his solos wouldn't have benefited from some transposition; where was musical director Christopher McGovern?) and his chemistry with charismatic Kelly McCormick is quite lovely to behold. But every time he strode onstage to sing charmingly about pay increases or began romancing McCormick's character, all I could think of was When are these nimrod Iowans going to notice he's Colored?

Perhaps even more unsettling for me was the passionless performance by Bob Sorenson, a multi-talented performer who handed in what had to be last season's best acting work in I Am My Own Wife. Here, as timekeeper Hines, Sorenson walks through every moment of his performance. I'm pretty sure I've never seen such lackluster execution from Sorenson, who appeared, at the Sunday matinee I attended, to be bored out of his mind up on stage.

Ultimately, so was I. Not because this production isn't a well-wrought Pajama Game, but because Pajama Game is, in the end, a sweetly dated confection, a charming "ho hum" but not much more.

 
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3 comments
Michelle Miller
Michelle Miller

What is the purpose of color blind casting anyway? To be colorblind, to ignore the significance of someone's race and the advantage/disadvantage it places them in is being racist in of itself.

Christopher McGovern
Christopher McGovern

Fascinating take I suppose. But I wonder how all those 1870s New England "nimrods" felt when Audra McDonald as Carrie crooned about her white Mister Snow in the '94 Broadway revival of "Carousel". Subliminal perhaps? The irony was likely not intended by Mr. Hammerstein. She won her first Tony for it in 1994 and she was singing about marrying him for God's sake. But Ms. McDonald is pretty radical. She just had a crush on Christopher Invar's File, and then on Steve Kazee's Starbuck in the recent Roundabout's "110 In The Shade." White boys, both. Those lefties in NY gave her a Drama Desk and nominated her for yet another Tony. Brandy as Cinderella (on television!) pining for Paolo Montalban. Her stepsisters were different races too - so just who was that Stepmother carrying on with? And marketed to children! Shocking. Would Brain Stokes Mitchell have asked to be dubbed a Knight in late 1600s Spain? An Impossible Dream. Maybe that's why he's in the dungeon at the top of the show. James Earl Jones as Lear in 1974? Appalling. Do Goneril, Regan and Cordelia know their dad is black? No wonder they squabble so incessantly. At least when they revived "Hello Dolly" in '75 with Pearl Bailey they had the good sense to use an all black cast. Otherwise they would have had to seat Ms. Levi at the back of the Harmonia Gardens near the kitchen. Not the most ideal blocking to land a big production number.

So if that Noisy Dame in front of you didn't question the choice, I am surprised you did. But it does make for some interesting speculation. I'm trying to imagine Poopsie saying "that new super is..WOO WOO! But he's not our kind." Maybe Mabel, when queried by Sid about Babe's marital status should have said: "I heard you had an eye for her. But don't even think about it Sid. She's white." Or, after the couple finally get together, Hines might come back for his last entrance and say: "They'll never last. Because he's black." Besides being illegal changing the play, it would set the cause of color blind casting back into the...oh, let's say...1950s.

You asked me where I was as the Musical Director. Answer: I was the pianist conducting the "beautifully played and nicely sung" score. Thank you for that, but for the record: I transposed all of Sid's solos, and other parts of the score for other actors and re orchestrated them - something rarely done in LORT revivals of big musicals with 8 pieces in the pit. It was a boatload of work, which I happily did because David Ira, Patti Wilcox and myself felt Kevyn was the perfect performer for the CHARACTER of Sid. ("Handsome superintendant" is in the character description, but I didn't see "caucasian.") The songs are now in the right keys for him. But being human, perhaps you caught him on an off day, or he caught you on an off one. Kevyn has precious few of them, but we've all been in your lovely yet extraordinarily dry climate for two and a half months. Even the non-singing company members have struggled with that infamous "Vegas throat". Lucky for us, the many Noisy Dames (and others) in the audiences never seem to notice. They holler and coo for Mr. Morrow at his curtain call like he was Tom Jones. (Sorry - Lou Rawls?) And in McCain terratory too! Some of them probably remember the 50s, when for starters a black man would never have been able to get a job as a supervisor in an Iowa factory to begin with, much less sing "Hey There" about a white gal. (Well...he is alone in his office for the number, safely out of the Nimrod's earshot.) If you are truly being literal, your hackles would have been raised at his first entrance. Babe's Pop even likes Sid, which should be good enough for anyone. I doubt he trots out the stamp album for just any prospective suitor.

You didn't mention the longest-running interracial couple in the show, Michelle Aravena's Gladys and Bob Sorenson's Hines. With a last name like that, she likely would not have risen in the 1950s corporate ranks to the boss' secretary, much less be openly dallying with the resident white timekeeper either. Fortunately for us, she did in this production. Of course Boss Hassler is not doing too great a job anyway, sending head field salesman Robert Encila as Max to Peoria (!!) to peddle the Sleep Tite pajamas. Who's gonna buy those spiffy new "flannelettes" from a Filipino?

We recently did a student matinee for a racially mixed crowd of HS students. They were wonderful, one of our best audiences, screaming like they were at a rock concert when Sid and Babe (the characters) kissed, and booing Sid when he fired Babe at the end of Act 1. The whole company loved it. The kids were caught up in the story, you see. It may be a tired one for some, but it was fresh and engaging for them and not one of them questioned the romance or the casting at the Q & A after the performance. They have to be carefully taught I imagine, and I am proud to have played a tiny part of that. If things keep going like this, we might someday have a black President. Oh wait - we actually might.

Musical Director, PAJAMA GAME, ATC

With all due respect, I favor this take from the Tucson Weekly:

"Let's start with Kevyn Morrow as the hero, Sid the supervisor. Morrow has everything this role needs: good looks, good physique (his last costume is nothing but pajama bottoms), a beautiful croon and an ability to act with and without music behind him. He conveys just the right degree of loneliness in "Hey There," never going so far as to wallow, and in the happier moments--which is most of the show--his delight, as both a character and a performer, is genuine and palpable.

He also happens to be African American, and that brings a whole new richness to Sid's position in the story. This Sid is a smart, capable black man trying to succeed as a manager in the 1950s Midwest. This brings more edge to the alienation he feels as a newcomer to Cedar Rapids, Iowa (expressed in the song "A New Town Is a Blue Town"), and the initial antagonism he feels from the workers and even from his own boss. Still, the race element isn't overplayed; it's an unspoken consideration, but not an Issue. Besides, none of the characters think twice when Sid hooks up with his white love interest, probably not an accurate reflection of what would have happened in 1954 Iowa. Musical comedy does require a fundamental suspension of disbelief, after all."

Nicely said, if one feels the need to go there at all.

http://www.tucsonweekly.com/gb...

Kimberly Clark
Kimberly Clark

You MISSED the point of color blind casting. You are not suppose to see any of the characters as black or white, but as people. As a critic, I would have hoped you'd been exposed to the diversity of theatre.

 
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