If you’re of a certain age and you like musical comedy, you can probably sing along with the multitude of hit songs in The Pajama Game, which opened on Broadway in 1954 and later became a popular movie starring Doris Day and John Raitt.
If you’re younger, the songs will be familiar through jazz versions or elevator music. You’ll recognize many of them in this buoyant, warm-hearted show now playing in the Jaqua Concert Hall at The Shedd.
The Pajama Game ran for 1,063 performances in New York and earned a Tony for best musical. The script by George Abbott and Richard Bissell, based on Bissell’s novel 7 1/2 Cents, and the irresistible songs by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross take us to the heart of working class America in the 1950s.
The current production at The Shedd features a large, exceptional cast. With expert direction by Ron Daum, and Robert Ashens returning as the longtime music director and conductor for Shedd Theatricals, the well polished production is thoroughly entertaining.
The title, deliberately misleading, refers to the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory in Iowa, where the frenzied workers churn out pajamas as fast as humanly possible. Fortunately, they belong to a labor union, and their goal is to gain a raise of seven and a half cents per hour.
Thomas Guastavino, blessed with a glorious voice and fast feet as the union president, Prez, and engaging Lynnea Barry as Babe, the smart, fearless leader of the grievance committee, are making little headway with Mr. Hasler, the company director (Brandon Weaver). Throw in a new superintendent, Sid Sorokin, portrayed by the amiable Trevor Eichhorn, and you’ve got an intensified dynamic. Sid has to support his boss and Babe is loyal to the workers, but obviously there’s chemistry between them.
How do they get acquainted, quarrel and fall for each other? Through music, of course. By singing “Hey There,” “Small Talk,” “I’m Not at All in Love” and “There Once Was a Man,” they lay bare their fluctuating emotions.
In addition to Sid and Babe’s rocky romance and their battle between management and the union, the authors provide numerous subplots to keep the audience — and actors — satisfied. Hasler’s secretary Gladys (Vanessa Greenway), and her ridiculously jealous boyfriend Vernon (Alex Mauney), are hilarious together. Grigorii Malakhov as Max the salesman is also funny. Daum encourages all of the comic characters to cut loose with exaggerated body language, almost to the point of vaudevillian physical humor.
In the first act the biggest ensemble musical number is “Once-a-Year Day,” sung at the action-packed annual company picnic. In the second act two song and dance routines dispose of the wholesome midwestern ambiance and stand out as original breakthrough numbers that presage a transformation of musicals to come.
What happened? The choreographer Bob Fosse (as in the biopic All That Jazz) happened. The Pajama Game gave him his first Broadway job, and audiences fell in love with his startling, innovative artistry. The first unexpected song, “Steam Heat,” is sung and danced at the same time. Featuring Fosse’s unusual contortions and jazz hands, black costumes, bowler hats and canes, it sets the stage for a long string of future hits. The choreographer for the Shedd production, Laura Sue Hiszczynzkyj, wisely stayed close to Fosse’s original work.
Featured in the excellent, hard-working ensemble are Claude Offenbacher, Heidi Turnquist, Alicia Green, Lucy Geller, Broder Foshay, Clarae Smith, Eliana Arpaia, Hanna Foshay, Gabrielle Rios, Matthew Michaels, Jordan Andreasen, Riley Given, Nehemiah Nance and Shae Brosky.
The eye-catching costumes are by Anna Bjornsdotter, and the colorful sets are by Jim Ralph and Connie Huston.
The enthusiastic opening night spectators giggled, guffawed and applauded the show’s high points from start to finish. Yes, some of them really did sing along softly. Clearly they needed some sweet, silly fun from an earlier era to provide a brief respite from our current stressful times.
The Pajama Game is playing at The Shedd Institute through Sept. 18; times and tickets through TheShedd.org or 541-434-7000.