Theater

Harry Connick Jr., The Cat's 'Pajama'

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 25, 2006

NEW YORK -- Olivier he ain't. Still, when Harry Connick Jr. turns on the crooner's charm in the dandy revival of "The Pajama Game" that opened Thursday night, you relax in the way that only a young master puts you at ease. With the dulcet feasts he makes of such songs as "Hey There" and "Small Talk," it hardly matters that his portrayal of stand-up guy Sid Sorokin consists of equal parts vocal muscle and wood.

Hey, can they award a Tony to a throat?

"The Pajama Game" is Connick's Broadway acting debut -- he did write the score of "Thou Shalt Not," a 2001 musical set in his hometown, New Orleans -- and with this bull's-eye casting, a Broadway musical star has been minted.

The pool of virile leading men is shallow, verging on parched. Connick's embrace of this new role immediately turns the spigot back on. As male star crossovers go, this is a bigger deal than, say, Antonio Banderas's vibrant work in the remounting of "Nine" three years ago, simply because of Connick's superior musicianship, his cannier, sultrier way around a show tune.

It's not the usual Broadway voice, for sure, and for that reason, it's doubly exciting to hear it fill the American Airlines Theatre, where Kathleen Marshall's harmoniously lighthearted production deserves a long and fruitful life. Connick is far from the only pistol in Marshall's holster. The director elicits delicious work as well from Kelli O'Hara ("The Light in the Piazza") as Connick's love interest in a Midwestern pajama factory. Although her Babe Williams is not quite the rabble-rousing firecracker she's meant to be, O'Hara possesses a gorgeous voice and a naturalness that serves as a softening agent in Connick's less-than-agile dramatic moments. (In acting ability as well as vocal talent, Connick puts you in mind of the young Sinatra.)

Megan Lawrence and Michael McKean, playing the musical's tempest-tossed secondary couple, handle the bulk of the comic payload, and do so with aplomb -- Lawrence in a show-stopping "Hernando's Hideaway," McKean in a sweet soft-shoe duet, "I'll Never Be Jealous Again," with that funny distiller of attitude, Roz Ryan.

The Roundabout Theatre Company production is a reflection of the solid entertainment values of golden-age musical comedy. The 1954 score by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross is packed with satisfying standards -- "I'm Not at All in Love," "There Once Was a Man," "Steam Heat" -- of a caliber that, overall, might surpass the memorable music they would compose a year later for "Damn Yankees."

Like "Damn Yankees," the show, with a libretto by George Abbott and Richard Bissell, cartwheels through one of those innocent '50s stories of all-American pluck and brio. This story unfolds in the Sleep Tite pajama factory in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Yes, once upon a time, apparently, your clothes sported labels that declared, "Made in the USA." ("Pajama Game 2" no doubt would take place somewhere on the Chinese mainland.) Sid is management, Babe is a union rep, and they simultaneously fall in love and lock horns after the company turns down the workers' demand for a raise of a measly 7 1/2 cents an hour.

Nevertheless, Sleep Tite seems a pretty benign sweatshop, what with the requisite factory masher (Peter Benson) being a hopeless nerd, and the laborers forming an integrated, coed barbershop quartet for company picnics.

Marshall, to her credit, does not try to convince us that we're more sophisticated than the men who wrote the show, and the designers are on board, too, for our time-travel trip back to musical-comedy land. The set designer, Derek McLane, creates a buoyant factory floor for cutters and stitchers, complete with a belt conveying pajama tops and bottoms across the stage. And costume designer Martin Pakledinaz dresses the cast in what look like the colors of good, clean fun.

Marshall's choreography lacks inspiration, though. Bob Fosse famously devised the dances in the original; the sizzling Act 2 opener, "Steam Heat," is one of the most oft-"quoted" of his creations, and it also gave birth to one of the great backstage stories in Broadway lore. During the run, Carol Haney, the original lead dancer in "Steam Heat," was injured. On a night when her understudy -- a chorus girl by the name of Shirley MacLaine -- went on, a movie producer was in the audience and signed MacLaine to a contract.

"Steam Heat" is reproduced here with the trademark Fosse derby hats and indelible Fosse gestures. (The female dancer in this production has been switched from the character of Lawrence's Gladys to Joyce Chittick's Mae.) The number is danced athletically by Chittick, Vince Pesce and David Eggers, and yet it looks as if it's missed the height of the party. The dancing at the company picnic, too, feels about as dull as the humdrum activities -- sack races, tugs of war, square dances -- it celebrates.

The energy that should infuse those sequences is transferred in this "Pajama Game" to the more intimate songs, particularly a thrilling version of "There Once Was a Man" by Connick and O'Hara. In their rendition, it's a wild mating dance. They sing the choruses of the song to each other with a sense of carnal expectation: After the applause comes the bedroom. It's the song in which Connick lets go the most, thrusting his pelvis like a latter-day Elvis. You can almost hear the director's instructions: "Sing it as if you wanted to tear each other's clothes off."

The production wastes no opportunity to show off Connick. During "Hernando's Hideaway," a piano is pushed to center stage, and the star goes to town. Would Sid the plainspoken pencil-pusher be the type you could book into the Blue Note? Oh, who cares? As Marshall herself might want to argue, it's a musical!

And an arena in which Connick shows that he belongs. Hugh Jackman ("The Boy From Oz") probably sets the gold standard these days for leading men who have made the leap to Broadway, but Connick is sterling silver.

The Pajama Game, music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell. Book revisions by Peter Ackerman. Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall. Lighting, Peter Kaczorowski; sound, Brian Ronan; orchestrations, Dick Lieb and Danny Troob; musical supervisor, David Chase. With Michael McCormick, Bianca Marroquin, Paula Leggett Chase. About 2 1/2 hours. Through June 11 at American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., New York. Call 212-719-1300 or visit http://www.roundabouttheatre.org .


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