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‘Pajama Game’ – dejas vu for this theater critic

By Staff | Apr 17, 2009

When my friends and I went to see the non-equity, touring production of the Phoenix Entertainment’s “Pajama Game” last week at the Barbara Mann, it was a real trip down memory lane for me. “Pajama Game” was my first Broadway show but, in 1954, it was also the first Broadway venture for a great number of people..

When the show opened in May of 1954, it was Bob Fosse’s first crack at choreography, Robert Griffith and Harold Prince’s first time out as producers, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’s first musical score, Carol Haney became an overnight star in her first Broadway show, plus a whole bunch of chorus dancers and singers, one of whom was my dancing school chum, Shirley MacLaine.

As one of the reviewers wrote “‘Pajama Game’ takes a whole barrelful of gleaming new talents, and a handful of stimulating ideas and sends them tumbling in happy profusion over the footlights. “Pajama Game” has a fresh and winning grin on its face from the onset. The dances by Fosse are fast, funny when they ought to be, and neatly dovetail into a hard-driving book by Richard Bissell. Haney makes “Steam Heat” hotter then even its doting composers Adler and Ross could have hoped. Of course, behind all the brand-new names and the brightly creative stage business stands a real pro, a gentleman named George Abbott, the director wizard of this enterprise, and he has brought in a humdinger.” This rave review was written by theater critic Walter Kerr, a man who was capable of cutting a show to shreds if it didn’t please him.

I am happy to report that this latest rendition of “Pajama Game” at Mann Performing Arts Hall confirmed it to be the same fast paced, raucous, rollicking, tuneful musical that it was 55 years ago. The Phoenix Entertainment’s production values were first rate – by that I mean the sets and costumes. The cast of 20 was lots smaller than our original cast of 36; the choreography by Mark Minnick wasn’t near as edgy or sharp as Bob Fosse’s. The non-equity cast was, by and large, pretty good, ‘though Jason Winfield in the John Raitt leading-man role of Sid Sorokin didn’t quite cut all the high notes in the musically rangy songs. On the other hand Crystal Kellogg, in the Janis Paige role of Babe, was fantastic – a voice that could cut glass, a wicked sense of humor, and the talent to dance like a dream. This striking performer is a name to remember and one who definitely has a possible future on the Broadway stage.

Watching this show was an evening of instant recall for me – all those hours of rehearsals not only in New York, but also the wild out-of-town tryouts in New Haven and Boston. On opening night in New Haven, for example, we had real industrial strength sewing machines with motors running full-tilt, drowning out all the music and lyrics to the opening number, “Racing With the Clock.” Needless to say, we killed the motors the next night and added a cross-over number, “I’m Not at All in Love,” to make a set change that hadn’t worked opening night either. Every day we took out bits that didn’t work and added new numbers to replace them.

The great memory I have of this show was that we were all so new and so enthusiastic that we were willing to practically kill ourselves for the good of the show. The end result was that the show was 1954’s smash hit musical, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical, plus Tonys for composers Adler and Ross, George Abbott and Richard Bissell’s book, and Fosse’s choreography. Anyone who had worked on this show always had a job with Producers Griffith and Prince as well as with Fosse. Shirley MacLaine became a movie star after Hal Wallis saw her perform as the understudy for Carol Haney.

And, now that I have your attention, here’s a bit of shameless commercial, alerting all of you of my next live appearance on our local stage. You’re in for a wild ride and a hilarious evening of fun and games when Write to Act performs “The Long Weekend,” a series of all-original monologues and sketches based on the madcap happenings of unique individuals over one surprising weekend.

The evening as been created by Glenn Alterman, an award-winning New York playwright who has written and published hundreds of monologues, along with original material by writers Bryan Chaikin and Robert Hilliard of the Write to Act group.

Write to Act is comprised of business and theater professionals brought together by founder Bonnie Grossmann to explore writing and acting for the theater. “We are all passionate about the spoken word and the theater,” Grossmann says. “I set out to create a special apace where we would feel safe to explore that world and share what we’ve discovered with others.” The group members include John Bartis, Chaikin, Hilliard, Max Jacobs, Kevin Pierce, Amy Tardif and (you-know-who) Marsha Wagner.

The group approached Alterman to join them for a second time for this Theatre Conspiracy benefit, sending him headshots and descriptions of each member. He sent them back more than 30 monologues to choose from which were funny, serious and surprising. As well as being an award-winning playwright, Alterman is a published author of 16 books, many of them containing monologues, an audition/monologue coach, and a college lecturer.

Performances are at 8 p.m. this Friday, April 17, and Saturday, April 18, at Theatre Conspiracy, 2711 Park Windsor Drive-#302 in Fort Myers. The theater is located off Evans Avenue behind Sasse’s Restaurant (not a bad place to eat before the show). The cost is $10 and all proceeds will benefit Bill Taylor’s Theatre Conspiracy. To make reservations, call 239- 936-3239.

P.S. When you call, tell ’em Marsha sent you!