The Pajama Game

That sound you hear coming from 42nd Street is the collective swoon of hundreds of women -- and quite a few men -- whenever Harry Connick Jr. eases into a song in "The Pajama Game." With his handsome wholesomeness and those mellifluous Sinatra-esque pipes, it's hard to imagine a leading man more tailor-made for this 1954 show.


That sound you hear coming from 42nd Street is the collective swoon of hundreds of women — and quite a few men — whenever Harry Connick Jr. eases into a song in “The Pajama Game.” With his handsome wholesomeness and those mellifluous Sinatra-esque pipes, it’s hard to imagine a leading man more tailor-made for this 1954 show. The really good news, though, is that most everything else in the candy-colored Roundabout revival is equally on the mark, from Connick’s beguiling co-star, Kelli O’Hara, to the vocally and comically gifted ensemble.

Much as she did three seasons ago with the same era’s “Wonderful Town,” director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall avoids any hint of contemporary knowingness, presenting this quintessential ’50s fluff for exactly what it is. Marshall’s direction favors crispness and polish over innovation. But the respect and affection she shows the material is a tonic, rescuing a delightful show from the obscurity of high school and community theater stagings.

The musical might be set in a factory, against the backdrop of a union battle for a wage increase, but this is no “Norma Rae.” It’s a familiar guy-meets-girl, guy-loses-girl, guy-wins-girl-back story that’s no less enjoyable for its frothiness.

Based on Richard Bissell’s novel, “7½ Cents,” the book by George Abbott and Bissell plants hunky new superintendent Sid Sorokin (Connick) at the Sleep Tite pajama factory in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as the workers are getting steamed up about an overdue hourly pay increase. Sid falls for Babe (O’Hara), the feisty head of the factory’s grievance committee, who correctly predicts a union-management clash between them. Her resistance proves short-lived, but it takes Sid’s intervention in the labor dispute to make the on-off romance finally bloom.

Composing team Richard Adler and Jerry Ross spawned only two hit shows before the latter’s death from leukemia at 29. “The Pajama Game” and the following year’s “Damn Yankees” both stand up a half-century on thanks primarily to their buoyant song scores, which blend earnest romance with satirical comedy and catchy lyrics that refuse to take themselves too seriously. Lines in “There Once Was a Man” like “More than a hangman loves his rope” or “More than a dope fiend loves his dope” must surely be among the drollest romantic yardsticks in the American songbook.

Performed like an Elvis Presley/Ann-Margret number, that rowdy anthem to boundless love, with its whip-cracking, country-flavored yelps, is one of many high points in the breezy first act of “Pajama Game.” It also seals the chemistry between Connick and O’Hara, which has been fermenting on a low flame up to that point.

Part of the delay is due to a certain stiffness in Connick’s perf that no doubt will vanish as he settles into the role. Taking Sid’s seriousness about the new job too literally at first, he glowers from under his ’50s quiff, seeming slightly joyless even when he’s flirting with Babe. But each time he opens his mouth to sing, the warmth and effortlessness of Connick’s vocals help mellow the character.

In his dancing, in particular, he needs to relax and try to have a good time. But in his first theatrical stage role, Connick already is enormously appealing.

If the crooner’s satiny handling of songs like “A New Town Is a Blue Town” and “Hey There,” his buff physique and matinee-idol looks failed to convince anyone about the wisdom of packaging this revival around him, Connick’s virtuoso work at the piano in “Hernando’s Hideaway” should dispel those doubts.

A rousing show-stopper, the song starts as a hilarious vehicle for comic dynamo Megan Lawrence, then segues via a playful mock-seduction at the keyboard to Connick’s dazzling jazz riffs on the tongue-in-cheek tango number. This extended take on “Hideaway” is the production’s most inspired touch, its exuberance and spontaneity making the entire theater crackle with energy.

In a radical switch from her innocent, unguarded role in “The Light in the Piazza,” O’Hara’s Babe is a prickly, circumspect woman, too smart, principled and sure of herself to dive right into romance despite its gravitational pull. “I don’t cross no union line for no moderately good-looking, full-of-himself superintendent,” she tells Sid.

With her tidy blonde hairdo and elegant outfits, this Babe is way too chic to be a factory worker, and O’Hara doesn’t have the grittiness of the film version’s Doris Day. But her natural freshness and pluck, her creamy beauty and winning way with a song make her a joy to watch. She’s such an accomplished throwback to triple-threat golden-age musical stars that you start mentally casting her in all kinds of classic tuners. (Calling Bartlett Sher: How about your “Piazza” star as Nellie Forbush in the “South Pacific” revival?)

The supporting ranks also boast strong work. Lawrence makes a daffy caricature of the boss’s secretary, Gladys; Michael McKean is suitably twitchy as the factory’s time-study man and Gladys’ chronically jealous suitor; and Roz Ryan’s secretary, Mabel, cuts a sassy figure. Ryan and McKean’s easy comic rapport invigorates “I’ll Never Be Jealous Again,” complete with an amusing soft-shoe routine.

Also entertaining is Peter Benson as Prez, the nerd who fancies himself a womanizer; and Joyce Chittick as tomboyish Mae, the equally nerdy co-worker who struggles to get his attention.

Flanked by David Eggers and Vince Pesce, Chittick gets to sizzle in act-two opener “Steam Heat,” which seems somewhat out of character, but hey, it’s a musical. Originally danced by Gladys, that number more than any other here is indelibly associated with the iconic choreography of Bob Fosse. While Marshall retains the bowler hats, she broadens the movement beyond Fosse’s tight shoulder rolls and robotic legwork; though the result is dynamic, it doesn’t stand up to the comparison.

There are also distinct nods to Fosse in “Hideaway,” but the dancing in general is higher on vigor than imagination. However, when a show is as solidly staged and performed as this one, it’s hard to quibble about lack of reinvention — or about a second act that could use some pruning.

From Derek McLane’s boldly colored, cartoonish sets to Martin Pakledinaz’s snazzy costumes to the rainbow tones of Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting, the accent is on fun. But ultimately, it’s the pleasure of hearing this hit parade of songs, vibrantly reorchestrated by Dick Lieb and Danny Troob, and socked across by a terrific cast that gives the production its persuasive charm.

The Pajama Game

American Airlines Theater; 721 seats; $101.25 top

  • Production: A Roundabout Theater Company presentation, by special arrangement with Jeffrey Richards, James Fuld Jr. and Scott Landis, of a musical in two acts with music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell, based on Bissell's novel "7½ Cents." Book revisions, Peter Ackerman. Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall. Musical direction, Rob Berman.
  • Crew: Sets, Derek McLane; costumes, Martin Pakledinaz; lighting, Peter Kaczorowski; sound, Brian Ronan; hair and wig design, Paul Huntley; orchestrations, Dick Lieb, Danny Troob; musical supervisor-vocal and dance arranger, David Chase; music coordinator, Seymour Red Press; production stage manager, David O'Brien. Opened Feb. 23, 2006. Reviewed Feb. 17. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.
  • Cast: Sid Sorokin - Harry Connick Jr. Babe Williams - Kelli O'Hara Hines - Michael McKean Prez - Peter Benson Mae - Joyce Chittick Gladys - Megan Lawrence Ganzenlicker, Pop - Michael McCormick Mr. Hasler - Richard Poe Mabel - Roz Ryan <b>With:</b> Bridget Berger, Stephen Berger, Kate Chapman, Paula Leggett Chase, Jennifer Cody, David Eggers, Michael Halling, Bianca Marroquin, Michael O'Donnell, Vince Pesce, Devin Richards, Jeffrey Schecter, Amber Stone, Debra Walton.