L.A.’s concert musical series Reprise! kicks off its second season in fluffy form with the beloved Richard Adler & Jerry Ross romantic comedy “The Pajama Game.” The tuner’s a less than adventurous choice: It was one of the most successful musicals of the 1950s, as Reprise! chief Marcia Seligson’s program note reminds us, and was turned into a moderately delightful movie starring Doris Day and much of the Broadway cast, which had the added benefit of preserving Bob Fosse’s original choreography. In fact its very familiarity may be what makes this passable concert version so unexciting: You’ve probably seen it before, and you may well have seen it done better.
The show is a piece of froth redolent of the 1950s, with its coy, sanitized sex gags, characters named Poopsie, Hinesie and Gladys, and a central plot revolving around workplace romances that would have people shrieking sexual harassment right and left today. So casting the black actor Dorian Harewood as male lead Sid Sorokin strikes a somewhat jarring note; colorblind casting is difficult to pull off — sometimes it works fine and sometimes it doesn’t. Here it doesn’t, since the full skirts and bowties keep reminding us that we’re supposed to be in the ’50s — the small-town ’50s, no less. It adds a layer of tension to the show that it can’t support.
More significantly, although Harewood is certainly handsome and has a fine and expressive singing voice, he’s not the strapping, swoon-inducing heartthrob the role requires. When the pajama factory girls instantly flutter as new supervisor Sid walks by, it’s hardly credible. Nor is the sudden passion for Sid that’s aroused in grievance committee chief Babe Williams (Christine Ebersole), which brings up problem No. 2: This staging’s truncated book, which has been adapted from the original by director Will Mackenzie and Jerome Kass.
Although this series and its New York prototype, Encores!, were ostensibly designed to celebrate great musical scores, with less emphasis on the sometimes shaky books, the productions are really not concert versions: There are costumes and dances and actors acting, not reading, their roles (despite scripts in hand). Thus the abbreviation of this show’s book seriously hampers its appeal and is a disservice to the performers, who can’t create very convincing characterizations when most of their dialogue consists of exposition leading to the next musical cue.
Musically, the production is on stronger ground: Ebersole has a distinctive, ringing voice with a charming nasal edge, and she puts her songs across with sweet conviction. Peter Scolari, as the chronically jealous Hinesie, has a charming comic duet with Brooks Almy, and his physical comedy is perfection. As Gladys, the object of his affections, Christina Saffran Ashford is a delight on all counts.
Patti Colombo’s choreography is largely stylish and well executed, particularly a Fosse-esque interlude at the show’s close with the chorus’s pajamas in amusing contrast to their slinky gyrations. (The exception, alas, is putative show-stopper “Steam Heat,” which recreates Fosse’s original choreography intact, and inadvertently serves to illustrate just how demanding his dances are.)
The show’s score is full of light-hearted gems: Babe’s “I’m Not at All in Love,” “Hey There,” “Hernando’s Hideaway.” But while this is certainly one of the best scores of the 1950s, it is very much of its time: There’s a lack of musical and particularly lyrical depth; by the time you’ve heard the 13th sweet and peppy but cotton-thin song, you begin to realize that the show needed all the panache a George Abbott and a Fosse could give it. That panache is by definition beyond the ken of the Reprise! series, and so “Pajama Game” looks to be just a nutritionally slight appetizer to the series’ far more enticing upcoming entrees: “The Threepenny Opera” and the Gershwins’ “Of Thee I Sing.”