The 5th’s splendid revival of the 1950s rom-com feels up-to-date thanks to its focus on workers rights. It runs through March 5.
The main thing that pegs the 5th Avenue Theatre’s splendid, sassy new revival of “The Pajama Game” as a throwback to the mid-1950s is not the actors’ retro hairstyles, nor the pencil skirts and other spot-on period togs designed by Rose Pederson. It’s not even the zesty, “Happy Days”-era repartee between the guys and dolls who toil together at the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory.
The Sleep-Tite workers’ wholehearted, full-throated support for their union at a fictional plant is what really dates this bang-up bash of a show.
A hit Broadway musical with union leaders as working-stiff heroes? And a finale celebrating a victorious campaign for a pay hike? In 1954, when membership in U.S. labor unions was at its peak, that concept was an easy sell – particularly if fortified with a top-notch score by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, exhilarating dance numbers, loads of gags and a sexy romance, all rebottled here with extra fizz by director Bill Berry and company.
‘The Pajama Game’
Through March 5, 5th Avenue Theatre, Seattle; tickets from $29 (206-625-1900 or 5thavenue.org).
The 5th Avenue’s spiffy staging makes no allusions to the various scandals, political quakes and corporate realignments that have reduced the country’s union participation from more than one in four employees in 1954 to about one in 10 today, according to government stats.
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But a more contentious new drive to raise the minimum wage comes to mind when revisiting the sunny spectacle of mid-American optimism and labor muscle in “The Pajama Game,” which like “Damn Yankees,” “Fiorello!” and other ’50s musical hits, slipped social messages into breezy romantic comedies.
From the opening number on a busy factory floor, with handheld irons shooting plumes of steam in time to the song “Racing with the Clock,” Carol Wolfe Clay’s dandy sets place in you a proudly working-class world which, in a welcome casting update, is both cohesive and racially diverse.
The tempestuous romance between Sleep-Tite’s determined, hunky new superintendent, Sid (Josh Davis) and Babe (Billie Wildrick), the gutsy head of the PJ union’s grievance committee, fleshes out the plot’s management vs. labor struggle as Babe tries to resist Sid’s lusty charms and stay loyal to her colleagues.
Prime pleasures here are Seattle’s invaluable Wildrick crowing “I’m Not at All in Love”; Davis pouring his dark-amber baritone into the sultry “A New Town Is a Blue Town”; and the dishy pair’s chemistry igniting in a whooping love call, “There Once Was A Man.” (“My love’s meteoric, it’s merely historic/ A whirlwind, a cyclone on wheels”)
But the clever George Abbott-Richard Bissell book (based on Bissell’s novel “7 ½ Cents,” the title referencing the sought-after hourly wage increase) wisely features a gaggle of other frisky personae upfront. There’s a rabidly jealous efficiency expert (fleet-footed Greg McCormick Allen) and his exasperated sweetheart (Sarah Rose Davis); a married Lothario (Kyle Robert Carter) and his dizzy mark (sparkling Taryn Darr); a humbug boss (David Pichette) and a secretary in the grand tradition of high efficiency and tart tongue (Shaunyce Omar).
Such comic archetypes have persisted in workplace comedies right up today’s “Superstore.” But “Pajama Game” links them to great numbers originally staged by Jerome Robbins and choreographed by Bob Fosse. Bob Richard’s dances here are less inventive than theirs, but supply the essential exuberance (“Once a Year Day”), slink (the irresistible “Hernando’s Hideaway”) and coy jazziness (“Steam Heat”).
Sure the wink-wink humor gets corny and the fine orchestra occasionally drowns out a singer. And the vision of labor-management rapprochement is simplistic. But best of all, “The Pajama Game” isn’t a sleepytime affair. It’s a nostalgic picker-upper about the power of banding together in song and solidarity.