Arena Stage is a stellar Washington, D.C. theater that regularly presents new productions of classic Broadway musicals. For the holidays this year, Arena is producing The Pajama Game. A smash hit when it was first staged on Broadway in 1954, The Pajama Game won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical, and Best Choreography.
The show was based on Richard Bissell’s 1953 novel, 7 ½ Cents, which told the story of a garment workers’ union that was demanding a 7 ½% raise in a Cedar Rapids, Iowa pajama factory. Unions were at their heyday in postwar America, and the percentage of workers belonging to unions reached an all-time high in 1954.
Legendary Broadway impresario George Abbott liked Bissell’s book and persuaded him to collaborate on writing The Pajama Game. Abbott wanted Guys and Dolls composer Frank Loesser to write the score, but Loesser was working on a new show, Most Happy Fella, and instead suggested Abbott hire his proteges Richard Adler and Jerry Ross; their main previous success was the song “Rags to Riches,” which Tony Bennett had made into a #1 hit recording in 1953. Adler and Ross joined a remarkable team of emerging Broadway legends that included 26-year old Harold Prince debuting as a Broadway producer, 27-year-old dancer Bob Fosse launching his career as a choreographer, and Jerome Robbins, who made his first appearance as a director collaborating with Mr. Abbott on The Pajama Game.
The show starred performers who were also not yet marquee names–John Raitt, Janis Paige, and Carol Haney. Amidst all these up-and-comers, GEORGE ABBOTT was the name that counted, and Abbott raised enough money to open the show in May 1954. Critics and the public loved it, and the show was such a triumph that it ran for 1063 performances. Rosemary Clooney had a #1 hit recording of the show’s ballad, “Hey There,” and a 1957 movie starring Raitt and popular film star Doris Day was a box office success.
Right: Eddie Korbich (Vernon Hines) and Donna McKechine (Mabel).
Why did Arena Stage think that this mid-50s musical about unions would have 21st century appeal? Director Alan Paul explained in an interview with me that, along with the rich and uplifting score, “it’s one of the great love stories of musical theater!” The story centers on the new foreman, Sid, and the union’s grievance committee chair, Babe. Advocates for different sides of the labor dispute, Sid and Babe inevitably fall in love. Sid warns himself in the love song “Hey There” that “you with the stars in your eyes/Love never made a fool of you/You used to be too wise,” and Babe reprises the ballad herself in Act 2.
Tim Rogan is terrific as Sid: he’s drop-dead handsome and has a big voice that fills the hall. Britney Coleman’s Babe matches him with enormous assurance and a lovely voice. The supporting cast is cross-the-board wonderful, with standout performances by tap dancing great Eddie Korbich as Vernon Hines, and Nancy Anderson, who sings and dances superbly as Gladys. Two terrific troupers add enormous panache: Ed Gero plays the factory boss, Mr. Hasler, with stage-absorbing confidence, and Donna McKechnie—yes, that Donna McKechnie!—appears as Mabel. The Tony-winning star of A Chorus Line (1975), McKechnie shows no sign of slowing up as she joyously both kicks up her heels and does a magical soft-shoe.
Left: Performing “Steam-Heat”:Tony Neidenbach, Jay Adriel, Nancy Anderson
The choreographer Parker Esse has created spirited dances for the entire company. According to director Alan Paul, Esse was a Broadway dancer and thoroughly understands “the spirit of the original Fosse choreography,” but here has injected “his very own original choreography voice” that “is authentic to his vision of the musical.” This production is staged in the round, and Esse has energized the entire space for such numbers as “Steam Heat” and “Hernando’s Hideaway.”
Costume designer Alejo Vietti and set designer James Noone have both captured the show’s spirit with colorful mid-century flair; the factory setting with garment workers sewing at their machines is particularly evocative. James Cunningham’s orchestra carries the day, immersing you in the score’s richness throughout the show.
Does this 1954 musical hold up? Indeed it does. This production wraps you in joy and cleanses your spirit—accomplishing exactly what Arena had intended. As director Alan Paul told me, “I hope this Pajama Game will be two and a half hours of fun and great entertainment. I want it to bring a smile to your face!”
By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer
The Pajama Game will play at Arena Stage through December 24th. www.arenastage.org
Amy Henderson is Historian Emerita of the National Portrait Gallery