If for no other reason than to witness the inspired pairing of Kristi Mason and Tyler Ashley as Babe and Sid, Lipscomb University's The Pajama Game-directed by Beki Baker, choreographed by Justin Boccitto and with music direction by Janet Holeman-is a theatrical treat; an exuberant, nostalgic and tuneful take on a classic American musical from the middle of the last century.
With music by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (who a year later would provide the score for Damn Yankees), and a book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell (based on the latter's novel 7-1/2 Cents), The Pajama Game focuses on the machinations of labor and management at the Sleep Tite Pajama Factory in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where the workers have long been overworked and underpaid. Though it might sound like an odd inspiration for a musical-but then, so does the story of an Englishwoman journeying to Siam for a teaching gig or a poor Frenchman sentenced to a chain gang for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family-it provides the structure for some of Adler and Ross' best songs and offers LU theater students the chance to shine in the spotlight.
Mason and Ashley-who in real life are engaged to be married next summer-are wonderfully paired as the musical's central characters. Mason's Babe is a factory worker who chairs the company's grievance committee, is active in the union and is a charming, sharp and clever blonde beauty. Ashley's Sid is the new, no-nonsense factory superintendent, a hardworking average Joe-er, average Sid-and a handsome and strapping young man who sets his sights on Babe the very moment he first sees her. With their offstage chemistry transferring beautifully to Lipscomb's Collins Alumni Auditorium stage, Mason and Ashley provide the production with much of its spark, aided and abetted by an enthusiastic, committed ensemble of performers assembled by Baker and her creative team.
Baker's focused direction moves the play's action along at a good pace and there's no denying the charms of the almost-60-year-old musical. However, there's some muddying of the issues (which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but which some first-time viewers might find confusing) that softens the plot's focus and the message intended by the show's creators in 1954. Clearly, The Pajama Game is a product of its times-can you imagine a musical about union workers being greeted with such enthusiasm nowadays?-but it is that which makes the story all the more relevant for today's audiences.
In Baker's staging, some of the details are lost amid the rather confectionary trappings of musical comedy: Hines, the company's efficiency expert, seems kinder and gentler despite his rampant jealousy; the flirtiness of Gladys, his girlfriend and the secretary to the company's boss, is fairly repressed; and the roles of Prez and Mae seem reconfigured-he's not married and she's more goofy than manipulative. As a result, much of the plot's labor/management conflict seem more contrivance than dramatic necessity.
Still, The Pajama Game is a fun and entertaining diversion, offering up some onstage portrayals that are noteworthy and a performance of the score by a remarkable 20-member orchestra under conductor Steve Rhodes' confident baton. Make no mistake about it, this is how the Adler/Ross score was meant to be heard and Rhodes' pit musicians display flair, precision and capability.
Add Boccitto's polished choreography to that mixture of good actors, exceptional orchestral accompaniment and focused direction and you have a successful recipe for a night of theater. Boccitto's clever blending of his own steps along with some of the iconic movement created by Bob Fosse for the original Broadway production (the deliciously unique "Steam Heat," here performed by Sydni Hayes, Anne Elisabeth Poe and the extraordinary Austin Hunt) ensures that The Pajama Game will live on in your memory as much for its dancing as for its full-out, Broadway-caliber singing (congratulations to Holeman for her expert work with her student charges).