WITH TALENT IT WORKS - EVEN WITH SCRIPT IN HAND
By Jeff Rubio
Cynics, especially the staunchly East Coast type, might scoff at the Reprise! musical theater series at UCLA as another flaky L.A. solution.
The series, now in its second season of the university's mid-size Freud (rhymes with dude) Playhouse, produces musicals with bare-bones sets and a few props. Rehearsal periods are shrunk way down to barely a week. That means busy Hollywood actors can sign on with less risk of missing their bread-and-butter film and TV work.
Naysayers dragged by their more open-minded friends to the latest Reprise! production, a revival of the 1954 smash Broadway musical "The Pajama Game," can roll their eyes all they want at the sight of actors clutching scripts as they perform. But the undeniable truth is that talent, good material and good spirit prevail over limited prep time.
"The Pajama Game" is one fun show. This level of song-and-dance is seldom seen in a theater this intimate. Musical director Peter Matz, his onstage orchestra and adept singers help make the sunny Richard Adler and Jerry Ross songs sound fresh and vibrant. Choreographer Patti Colombo and company have paid enough attention to the new dancing and Bob Fosse's original numbers to ensure plenty of excitement in that department, too. Good humor abounds.
Dorian Harewood is Sid Sorokin, the hunky new superintendent of a pajama factory where the workers want a 7 -cent raise. When Sid falls for Babe (Christine Ebersole), the head of the company's labor grievance committee, the ensuring management-labor showdown puts them at odds and spells trouble for their romance.
The labor uprising shouldn't lead anyone to think this is musical Sinclair Lewis. The breezy book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell is nothing more than a simple but effective variation of the boy-meets-girl-loses-girl-gets-girl-back tradition.
So does this company, directed by Will Mackenzie. Harewood, whom Orange County audiences saw in the touring production of "Kiss of the Spider Woman" with Chita Rivera that stopped at the Performing Arts Center a few seasons back, and songbird Ebersole make a swell vocal pair. Harewood proves in his first number, the melancholy "A New Town is a Blue Town," that ha can sing with character and style. He and the radiant and creamy-voiced Ebersole team to make the blissfully zany, Texas-tinged "There Once Was a Man" a vocal showstopper.
"Pajama Game's" best-known song, the kind Broadway routinely lobbed to pre-Beatles radio playlists, is the lovely ballad "Hey There" (remember, you with the stars in your eyes?). Harewood and Ebersole perform it nicely. But it's the big physical numbers that put most of the bright spots in these PJs.
To help propel the physical stuff, there is Peter Scolari ("Bosom Buddies," "The Bob Newhart Show"), who is always funny and watchable as Vernon, a middle-management type with a taste for the bottle, and a slinky secretary named Gladys, played with loads of comic charisma and verve by Christina Saffron Ashford.
Besides being funny, Ashford is quite a hoofer. Her work with two quality male dancers, Chad Everett Allen and John Charron, on one of Fosse's quintessentially witty and sexy numbers, "Steam Heat," shatters any preconception that this show be simply phoned-in Hollywood types slumming it on the theater boards.
Starting its second season, "Reprise! Broadway's Best in Concert" series offers a first-class revival of "The Pajama Game," the 1954 winner of the Tony and Donaldson awards for best musical.
With music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross and a book by the venerable George Abbott and Richard Bissell (based on Bissell's novel "7 - Cents"), the show is still brassy, classy and full of energy, certainly a fitting tribute to one of the biggest successes of the Golden Age of American musical theater.
Somehow, the '50s were different: Ike was the benevolent president of the postwar nation that still possessed a collective innocence. "The Pajama Game" visually and musically reflects that beguiling innocence and offers some intriguing ideas about the age-old battle between the sexes.
All takes place in the Sleep-Tite Pajama factory (with minimal sets by David Sackeroff and authentic '50s costumes by Marcy Froehlich) and tells the story of new superintendent Sid Sorokin (talented and likable Dorian Harewood) and his conflict with the union, which demands a 7 - cent raise from tight-fisted boss Mr. Hasler (Kenneth Kimmins).
Soon, a romance between Sorokin and Babe Williams (the wonderful Christine Ebersole) develops - only she's union and he's management. What's more, she's just as determined and driven as he is - and even though it was the '50s, Babe is very much her own person. Still, love - and the power of negotiation - prevail as they expertly sing "Hey There" and "Small Talk."
A whole factory of characters participate in the action: jealous time-study man Vernon and the ditzy secretary he longs for (Peter Scolari and Christina Saffran Ashford); the boss' secretary, Mabel (Brooks Almy); the union president, Prez (Bob Amaral). All are stage-savvy and first-rate as they sing and dance "The Pajama Game," "I'll Never Be Jealous Again" and "Once-A-Year Day."
Credit Will Mackenzie for skillful direction, Patti Colombo for the choreography (from the original Bob Fosse "Steam Heat" choreography) and Peter Matz for adept musical direction.
By Ed Kaufman