"The Pajama Game" is the 1954 musical comedy featuring "Steam Heat," a sexy, tightly wired number for three dancers that helped put a young Bob Fosse on the map. It springs naturally out of a show that's sort of about labor relations — the workers in a pajama factory need a raise — but is really about office romances, namely between new supervisor Sid Sorokin and grievance-committee head Babe Williams.
Sure, it's old-fashioned, but there's no reason it can't paste a smile on your face if it's got enough cheerful, seductive steam heat. Alan Paul's new production at Arena Stage gets a lot right, and it doesn't make the mistake of trying to change the show's vintage stripes. As he showed with "Kiss Me, Kate" for Shakespeare Theatre Company, Paul adores the great American song-and-dance style. This performance has energy to spare, looks snappy — goodness, such lively colors and patterns on designer Alejo Vietti's dresses, tight slacks and polo shirts! — and sounds good from the overture as Paul gives the dozen-musician orchestra the spotlight.
Yet, these jammies feel baggy. You can feel Paul and choreographer Parker Esse working at this classic Americana (with a book by the legendary George Abbott, who originally directed with Jerome Robbins). They never put a foot wrong, but they haven't reached the point of frisky command, either.
One of Paul's strengths has been casting leads in musicals, and his Sid (Tim Rogan) and Babe (Britney Coleman) are strong-voiced and more than fetching. You can see why the lithe Coleman and the piped Rogan would catch each other's eyes, and of course they finesse Sid's sexism — "You're the cutest grievance committee I've ever seen," Sid says as Arena's audience murmurs uncomfortably — by giving Babe a power that Coleman plays with ease. It's how "Pajama Game" has always worked.
Their duets don't make you swoon, though, and the galloping western tune "There Once Was a Man" is the one where you want to see them click. Rogan and Coleman are thoroughbreds, but despite their friendly smiles and sudden kisses, they always seem to be racing in separate lanes.
The mere appearance of "Chorus Line" Tony winner Donna McKechnie as office secretary Mabel gives the audience a lift, and the sustained grace of her light-footed duet in "I'll Never Be Jealous Again" has the audience applauding before it's through. Eddie Korbich is a jaunty partner for McKechnie as Hines, who's getting coached by Mabel to trust his gal, Gladys, and he has a classic wiseacre style that introduces the whole show perfectly. Korbich's second-act tap number, "Think of the Time I Save," goes nowhere, though, despite starting on a grand red staircase in one corner of James Noone's uncluttered set (beautifully lighted by Robert Wierzel) on the in-the-round Fichandler Stage.
Esse has playground fun with hula hoops and badminton rackets in the picnic dance bonanza "Once a Year Day," and his most interesting numbers are spaghetti-limbed inventions for second bananas. Blakely Slaybaugh slumps and slides like live Jell-O as a lusty nerd named Prez, and Slaybaugh meets his match in the hungry, athletic Gabi Stapula during a reprise of the primitive-titled tune "Her Is."
The whole cast suddenly erupts into infectious jubilation during "Hernando's Hideaway," a tango tune set in a nightclub for trysts. Someone slips a coin into the jukebox, and the number begins to swing. (Michael Dansicker has created new dance music for this production.) The cast twists and lifts as if it's finally been unleashed.
It's a funny feeling, because the show never seems aimed in the wrong direction. The casting checks out, from Nancy Anderson's comically nasal and limber turn as Gladys (who impressively executes her knockabout gymnastics as Gladys gets drunk at Hernando's) to Edward Gero's combustible presence as the factory head, Hasler.
But back to "Steam Heat." Anderson, flanked by two muscular men, struts and shrugs through the famous number with ginger vaudeville style, yet the sense of quirky, exacting machinery isn't quite there. The precision twitches, hip rolls and coy glances are good, not drop-dead. And throughout the evening, the pants-down slapstick never fully punches your ticket to delirium.
Vintage musicals will continue to be fertile territory for Paul, who's following the track carved a decade ago by director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall (whose 2006 Broadway "Pajama Game" was renowned for the chemistry between Harry Connick Jr. and Kelli O'Hara, so let's not be too quick to say the show can't make our pulses race). Paul's faith in a good orchestra — which is terrific here, led by music director James Cunningham — and classic singing and dancing has largely paid off so far. The next step is not just to live up to great traditions but to be cool and controlled enough to really play with them.
The Pajama Game, book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell, music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross. Directed by Alan Paul. Sound design, Daniel Erdberg. About 2½ hours. Through Dec. 24 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Tickets: $40-$120. Call 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org.