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The Pajama Game (02/23/2006 - 06/17/2006)


 

AP: "New 'Pajama Game' Sizzles"

Who knew there was so much sex appeal in a piece of musical theater that passed the half-century mark two years ago?

Well, check out the sizzle provided by the Roundabout Theatre Company's robust, thoroughly beguiling revival of "The Pajama Game," which opened Thursday on Broadway.

Much of that oomph - although not all - is provided by the interaction between the musical's leading man and leading lady - Harry Connick Jr. and Kelli O'Hara. As the show's two protagonists, they generate enough heat to warm the American Airlines Theatre into the next decade.

Credit director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall with putting the two of them together in this venerable 1954 musical, with its catchy score by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross and a serviceable yet sturdy book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell.

Back then, it was big hit, peppered with such hit songs as "Hey There," "Small Talk” and the tango-flecked "Hernando's Hideaway." The show also marked Harold Prince's debut as a producer and Bob Fosse's bow as a Broadway choreographer.

The story concerns a possible strike at a small-town pajama factory with the union activist (O'Hara) pitted against the plant superintendent (Connick). That they are in love only complicates matters, although in true musical theater fashion, their eventual happiness is never in doubt.

Marshall has an obvious affection for the material, but her take on "The Pajama Game" doesn't slavishly duplicate the original. Instead, she wisely plays to the strengths of her performers, showcasing them in the best possible light.

For example, there's a moment midway in the second act when, during an extended -and hilarious -version of "Hernando's Hideaway," Connick delivers a jazzy piano riff on that tango parody, sending it into the stratosphere.

The man, with his chiseled good looks, has a genuine stage personality. He takes "Hey There," sung in the original by the legendary John Raitt, and makes it his own. Connick croons in a style that suggests Frank Sinatra with a dash of Elvis Presley thrown in for good measure.

The svelte O'Hara, playing a character appropriately named Babe, is sensational. She is a performer who has grown from role to role, starting with "Sweet Smell of Success" to "My Life With Albertine" to "The Light in the Piazza"' and now this. They are four shows that couldn't be more different.

So when the two of them join forces for that booming country-tinged "There Once Was a Man," the effect is electric, a musical-comedy mating call made in heaven.

One of the other joys in this "Pajama Game" is watching an entire parade of lesser known but amazing performers do their stuff.

Michael McKean hams it up agreeably as the factory's time-study man, who keeps Gladys, the big boss' overworked secretary, forever at bay. Gladys is played by Megan Lawrence, a comic of megawatt talent.

Lawrence, who scored last summer in the Public Theater's Central Park production of "Two Gentlemen of Verona," is a scene-stealer of the highest caliber.

Peter Benson, who perfected the role of the sweet-tempered nerd in Marshall's version of "Wonderful Town," again demonstrates why he is one of the best second-bananas in the business, here playing a goofy, mama's boy union leader. And Roz Ryan, as another factory secretary, provides heaps of sass as a brassy foil to McKean.

Purists might be upset that "Steam Heat," the musical's signature dance number, has been taken from Gladys and given to another supporting character, Mae, played by the gaminlike Joyce Chittick. Nonsense. A superb dancer, Chittick, ably assisted by David Eggers and Vince Pesce, swivels through the song with ease.

Marshall's choreography pays homage to Fosse's original work. How can it not? But she has her own effortless, ingratiating style that finds expression not only in the show's exuberant dance numbers, but in the fluid, snappy pace of the entire evening.

Derek McLane's factory setting, framed by a proscenium arch covered in big red buttons, has rows of pajamas floating by above the performers in assembly line fashion. They are fun to watch. But then so is this entire "Pajama Game," a prime, grade A example of why musical comedy can be such a joyous experience.


AP
02/23/2006

New York Daily News: "Connick is tops, but 'Pajama' isn't"

Whenever Harry Connick Jr. is onstage, the revival of the 1954 musical "The Pajama Game" absolutely sizzles.

Connick's haunting voice and his gifts as a jazz vocalist (and, briefly, an improvisatory pianist) make the Richard Adler-Jerry Ross score -with such standards as "Hey There" and "A New Town Is a Blue Town" -seem fresh and powerful.

Especially in "New Town," he gives the song incredible intimacy - he makes us think we're not in a big theater, but a small, quiet room where someone is confiding in us. Too little about the revival, however, has this vitality and truthfulness.

Connick plays Sid Sorokin, the new manager of a Southern pajama factory, who finds himself simultaneously in love with and pitted against the head of the union's grievance committee, Babe Williams (Kelli O'Hara), at a time of labor tensions.

The book was always the trickiest part of the show. The new version, by Peter Ackerman, only makes it seem clunkier.

There is, for example, an efficiency expert named Hines (Michael McKean). He's insanely jealous of his flirtatious girlfriend, Gladys (Megan Lawrence), the boss's secretary.

Presumably, the reason he's jealous is that he's too busy to keep an eye on Gladys, but nothing about McKean's performance gives Hines any reality.

He just comes in to deliver his lines -often straight to the audience - and sing his songs (a new and quite needless one, "The Three of Us," has been inserted near the end of the show).

As Babe, O'Hara sings splendidly, but we don't sense a tough broad who surrenders to Sid only reluctantly,

She's too much the standard ingenue.

The one moment where the two do generate heat is "There Once Was a Man," which has the torrid energy the show too often lacks. They also click beautifully in an attractive new song, "If You Win, You Lose."

There is no such fizz in the dance number "Steam Heat," which should throb with sexual undercurrents but here seems merely acrobatic. Similarly, "Hernando's Hideaway," though clever, only takes off when Connick sits down at the piano.

This is disappointing because Kathleen Marshall, who both directed and choreographed this revival, certainly knew how to raise the temperature in the "Too Darn Hot" number she staged for "Kiss Me Kate" a few years ago.

Here, however, the choreography is conventional and the pacing in the dialogue scenes invariably sluggish.

There are some wonderful performances, especially Lawrence's as Gladys and Roz Ryan's as Sid's cynical secretary.

Martin Pakledinaz's costumes have period flair. Derek McLane's sets have comic style, but often the stage seems static and empty.

"The Pajama Game" was created at a moment when the theater and pop culture were the same thing. Except for Connick, who shows they still can be, this revival too often seems just a museum piece.


New York Daily News
02/24/2006

New York Post: "They're Great in Bed"

It’s a rare musical revival that actually matches - perhaps even surpasses -a much-loved original.

Yet this is the marvelous case of the new Roundabout Theatre production of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross' 1954 "The Pajama Game," which opened last night at the company's American Airlines Theatre.

It stars an absolutely revelatory Harry Connick Jr. and is staged and choreographed with amazing grace and zest by Kathleen Marshall. And did I mention Harry Connick Jr.?

The success is remarkable not least because of the oddball story: an averted union strike in a pajama factory in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. And the score, while containing a few standards, is hardly legendary Broadway fare.

But the show - the old book has been niftily adapted by Peter Ackerman - is also unusually funny, and with giddy assurance Marshall whirls around both comedy and cast.

Martin Pakledinaz's costumes are period-perfect without looking quaint; Peter Kaczorowski's lighting doesn't put a beam out of place, while Derek McLane's almost cartoonish scenery provides a charming setting for all the high jinks.

And high jinks just about describes a romp that somehow evokes a Broadway where critics expected to be tickled to death and audiences fell into aisles with helpless laughter.

Indeed, Marshall deserves the rank of Field Marshal for the way she deploys her troops - and not least in the choreography.

Original co-director Jerome Robbins was responsible for supervising dances, and actually created some, but most credit went to Bob Fosse making a memorable Broadway debut.

But Marshall has neither followed nor copied them - except almost inevitably for a Fosse homage in "Steam Heat." The dances, particularly in the wildly inventive "Hernando's Hideaway," are simply dazzling.

The performers are the purest delight, and it's difficult to know where to start handing over the bouquets.

Richard Poe is sneakily duplicitous as the factory owner, Peter Benson makes a bouncey little union leader intent on not getting cheated, and Joyce Chittick is a knockout as his girl Mae, a plain Jane who doffs her specs -and skirt - to raise "Steam Heat."

Though it was originally danced by the boss' secretary Mabel, the new Mabel is now the handsomely statuesque Roz Ryan, who acts up a storm and sings but doesn't dance.

As the pathologically jealous Hines, Michael McKean is a gem whether drunkenly throwing knives or offering the neatest of soft-shoes.

Kelli O'Hara is nicely tough with a beautifully soft center as the heroine Babe and sings most exquisitely, making Connick a perfect foil.

But the absolute standout - Connick apart - was Megan Lawrence as Hines' sidekick, Gladys, who would be worth a Tony Award simply for the manic enthusiasm she throws to the winds and a hapless Connick in "Hernando's Hideaway."

So how about Connick? After composing the most underrated Broadway score in the last 20 years ("Thou Shalt Not"), in his musical theater stage debut he is absolutely sensational. One disturbing point - close your eyes and you might think he was channeling Frank Sinatra.

But then, what the hell - he sounds so true and natural that it could almost be Sinatra channeling Connick.

He's bright, funny, plays a mean piano and can even dance. This is a debut of legendary proportions.

And in the roustabout finale, O'Hara and Connick admirably show that, with the right pair, pajamas can fit quite perfectly.


New York Post
02/24/2006

New York Times: "Dresses Are Fine, but Pajamas Are Devine"

Tell me!" Seen in cold print, these may not look like two of the sexiest words in the English language. But as spoken, shouted and sung by Harry Connick Jr. and Kelli O'Hara in Kathleen Marshall's delicious reinvention of "The Pajama Game," the 1954 musical that gave new meaning to labor-management relations, that simple little phrase transforms the private pleasures of pillow talk into a heady public celebration. And a little novelty number called "There Once Was a Man" becomes a rockabilly pelvis pumper that turns the thermostat way up on a show that has already been generating plenty of steam heat.

What's this? Sexual chemistry in a Broadway musical? Isn't that illegal now? If it were, then Mr. Connick and Ms. O'Hara (not to mention their red-handed director and choreographer, Ms. Marshall) would be looking at long jail terms. But as long as these stars are on the stage of the American Airlines Theater, where this frisky tale of a union dispute at a pajama factory opened last night, grown-up audiences have the chance to witness something rarely seen anymore: a bona fide adult love affair, with all its attendant frictions, translated into the populist poetry of hummable songs and sprightly dance.

Mr. Connick, best known as a velveteen crooner, and Ms. O'Hara, who here rockets past the promising ingénue status she attained with "Light in the Piazza," provide the fiery kick in a show that goes down as easily and intoxicatingly as spiked lemonade at a summer picnic. This "Pajama Game," which features an immortal pop-hit-spawning score by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, has the look of an Eisenhower-era Neverland, all striped and spotted pastels that suggest that God whipped up the world in a confectioner's kitchen. (Derek McLane and Martin Pakledinaz did the tasty candy-necklace sets and costumes.)

But Ms. Marshall — who demonstrated a knowing affinity for 1950's musicals with her work on the revivals of "Kiss Me Kate" and "Wonderful Town" — finds the sharper patterns of an eternal and conflicted mating dance amid the polka dots. Adapted by George Abbott and Richard Bissell from Bissel's novel "7½ Cents," "The Pajama Game" is famous as the musical that improbably set its numbers to the rhythms of slow-down strikes and union meetings. But "The Pajama Game" has always been all about sex.

I know, I know. Sex as presented in 1950's mainstream entertainment can seem quaint and creepy by contemporary standards — all winks and leers and nudges with buxom virgins on parade, the world of Billy Wilder and Ross Hunter movies at their smirkiest. But bear in mind that the film version of "The Pajama Game" (1957) allowed Doris Day, the queen of that sensibility, to deliver her most vibrant and least coy performance.

The factory girls and secretaries of "The Pajama Game" were never merely decorative objects. They had minds and spines of their own, which leveled the erotic playing field and made the central sport a fierce tug of war instead of a giggly game of hide and seek. Ms. Marshall fastens onto this aspect with happy assurance. In her "Pajama Game," it's the women who take the physical initiative and who land the first kisses.

At the show's center is the most confident and tough of those women, Babe Williams (Ms. O'Hara), head of the workers' Grievance Committee at Sleep Tite Pajamas, who catches the eye of the manly but shy Sid Sorokin (Mr. Connick), the company's new superintendent. But the course of true love never does run smooth when half the couple is union, and the other half is management, especially when their place of employment is divided by the workers' demand for a 7½ cent raise.

O.K., so much for the plot (if you don't know it already). "The Pajama Game" uses this economic framework to consider an assortment of male-female relationships. In addition to Sid and Babe, there are the obsessively jealous Hines (Michael McKean), the efficiency expert, and his girlfriend, Gladys (Megan Lawrence), secretary to the miserly boss (Richard Poe). Meanwhile the company nerd, Prez (Peter Benson), lunges unsuccessfully after everything in skirts until Mae (Joyce Chittick), his nerdette soulmate, claims him for her own. Hormones, needless to say, run riot at the company picnic.

That picnic is the occasion for one of the show's most famous numbers, "Once-a-Year Day," originally choreographed (on film as well as stage) by Bob Fosse. Ms. Marshall may have been reluctant to compete with Fosse's intimidating ghost. And in the picnic scene and the legendary "Steam Heat" sequence (performed as entertainment at a union meeting), she nods politely to Fosse the maestro without finding an equally compelling style of her own. With the exception of the nightclub ballet, "Hernando's Hideaway," which scintillates with choreographic wit, the big dance pieces have an agreeable but generic sock-hop quality.

It's in her personality-defining choreography for specific characters that Ms. Marshall shines. Every member of the company emerges as an individual, with stylistic quirks that are sometimes a tad too cute but nearly always charm. Mr. McKean (a priceless part of the spoof movie documentaries "This Is Spinal Tap" and "Best in Show") has a conversational ease with song and dance that revivify "I'll Never Be Jealous Again" (an appealingly throwaway soft-shoe with the delightful Roz Ryan) and "Think of the Time I Save." (He also effortlessly puts over the winsome "The Three of Us," one of two songs by Mr. Adler not in the original.)

Ms. Lawrence, always a distinctive presence ("Urinetown," "Two Gentlemen of Verona"), may reach a little too freely into her bag of tics as Gladys. But she certainly commands attention, and she and Mr. Connick make sweet comic music together with the suggestive plunking of piano keys in "Hernando's Hideaway." As the big bad boss, Mr. Poe is burdened with some cold war paranoia lines that I could do without. (Peter Ackerman did the book revisions for this production.) His is the only character drawn with a disruptively patronizing cartoonishness.

Ms. O'Hara and Mr. Connick, on the other hand, pulse with an immediacy that makes them, hands down, the hottest couple in the New York theater. (I suppose, if you're kinky, you could make a case for the erotic appeal of Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone in "Sweeney Todd," but I'd rather not hear about it.) Ms. O'Hara — who in the past has been required to be little more than sad, pretty and passive ("Piazza," "Dracula," "Sweet Smell of Success") — expertly trades in her silvery soprano for a touch of brass. Her Babe is brisk, bright and unconditionally alluring, even (or perhaps especially) when she turns on the deep freeze. With this show, she becomes a full-fledged musical star.

So does Mr. Connick, making his Broadway debut as an actor. (He was the composer for the 2001 musical "Thou Shalt Not.") Every earlier Sid I have seen (including Hal Linden and Brent Barrett) has been in the virile, firm-voiced tradition of John Raitt, who created the part on stage and screen. Mr. Connick brings moodier, more intricately expressive vocal shadings to his songs (nicely set off by Dick Lieb and Danny Troob's orchestrations). If there is a hint of Sinatra, as there often is with Mr. Connick, it's the elegiac, love-singed Frank of the "Wee Small Hours" album. And the standards "A New Town Is a Blue Town" and, of course, "Hey There" have never before sounded so beguilingly lonely.

There are also suggestions of less dapper, more rebellious 50's sex symbols. This Sid wears a chip on his shoulder, and a tied tongue in his mouth, with the flair of a grown-up James Dean who has been to anger management classes. And in the show's blissed-out high point, "There Once Was a Man" with Ms. O'Hara, Mr. Connick even channels the restless ghost of Elvis.

Theatergoers expecting an embalmed, stuffed musical, like so many Broadway revivals these days, will be disappointed. So will folks hoping to retreat into a serenely square, Eisenhower-tailored world. Popping with percolating hormones, this "Pajama Game" reminds us that in 1954, the age of rock 'n' roll was just around the corner, and the sexual revolution was only a decade away.


New York Times
02/24/2006

Newsday: "A game of labored heat"

When "The Pajama Game" bounced through in a luscious weekend concert version by the Encores! series in 2002, it seemed obvious that the 1953 musical comedy was ripe for a fresh Broadway vision.

Those Richard Adler-Jerry Ross hit-parade songs - "Hey, There," "Steam Heat," "Hernando's Hideaway" -were clearly worth more than a nostalgia spasm. And the story - love between labor and management during a pajama-factory strike - found the fizzy frisson between sociology and romance.

So much for the innocent pleasures of anticipation. Kathleen Marshall's botched revival, which the Roundabout Theatre Company opened last night, manages to be both busy and bland.

It stars Hasry Connick Jr., the Bourbon Street-bred, iconoclastic jazz traditionalist who has also become a hip TV and movie star. He toils conscientiously as Sid, the dashing superintendent of Cedar Rapids, Iowa's Sleep-Tite factory. We appreciate Connick's old-smoothy singing in his Broadway debut - a style that's more Sinatra crooner than traditional John Raitt baritone. Despite being tall and pumped-up, Connick has an almost endearing hangdog balefulness that seems more comfortable in melancholy ballads than at picnic hoedowns and slaphappy union rallies. But he really perks up for his bizarre, interpolated jazz-piano riff at the tango hideaway.

Marshall pushes for plenty of heat between him and Kelli O'Hara, who plays Babe, head of the union grievance committee. O'Hara, last seen as the brain-damaged ingenue of "The Light in the Piazza," has a creamy, crisp, Candice Bergen beauty and a ladylike way with George Abbott's racy book. Although Connick can mistake scowling for smoldering, there is a lascivious chemistry between the characters. Since the show's only other cliffhanger is the ski slope of Connick's hair, we are grateful for seamy distractions.

Otherwise, Marshall goes for forced-funny faces and squeaky-funny voices instead of substance and psychological coherence. Granted, "Pajama Game" is not what anyone could call an organically structured masterwork from the Golden Age. The trio that made Bob Fosse famous, "Steam Heat," interrupts the workers' struggle for a 7 ½-cent raise for a "let's put on a show" extravaganza at union headquarters. The slinky detour to "Hernando's Hideaway" is supposedly meant to help Sid seduce Gladys, the bookkeeper, away from the key that opens her boss' cooked books.

With all this mugging, we miss even a bit of urgency about the workers' demands. And Marshall wouldn't have needed to lecture us on sexual harassment to finesse a nuance about the perils in Sid's courtship of a woman who reports to him. Finally, we find it hard to laugh it up with the big boss (Richard Poe) now that Peter Ackerman has him pledging Red-baiting sympathies for Joe McCarthy in this revision.

Derek McLane's sets are cheerfully show-biz, with pajamas hanging high above the vaulting factory line, and huge pink and red buttons all over the proscenium. Martin Pakledinaz's fairy-tale '50s costumes are comparably unreal: women at their sewing machines in strappy shoes and clingy sweaters. After Babe gets fired, she goes right home and changes into high-heeled sling-backs. And Sid's shirt matches her kitchen cabinets.

Michael McKean brings a breezy, what-the-heck madness to Hines - supposedly the clockwatching efficiency expert but, here, a big, aging lug with Albert Einstein hair. McKean, beloved for "This Is Spinal Tap" and other mockumentaries, does a jaunty vaudeville soft-shoe with Mabel to "I'll Never Be Jealous Again."

In the original, and the 1957 film with Doris Day, Gladys (Carol Haney) danced both big numbers. For unknown reasons, Marshall splits the showpieces between two stock-comic characters. Megan Lawrence, as Gladys, goofs her way virtuosically through "Hideaway." Joyce Chittick delivers the erotic "Steam Heat" body isolations well enough, but her character, a supposedly unattractive tomboy named Mae, switches right back to her spunky caricature without explanation.

The songs are still lovely and unpredictably witty, especially Babe's waltzy insistence, "I'm Not at All in Love." For the record, the revival has three songs not in the original. One, a ballad for Sid, was cut during tryouts. None will make history.

Marshall's choreography is mostly generic and literal - a jitterbug, a hand-off country dance, an elbow-flapping chicken dance. The credits include the name of the "synthesizer programmer," but nothing about Fosse, whose fingerprints are still all over "Steam Heat." As the title song says, this is the game we're in.


Newsday
02/24/2006

USA Today: "Broadway's 'Pajama Game' jumps with joy"

At last, pure escapist fun has come back to Broadway.

I'm not talking about the self-congratulatory wit of critical darlings such as Avenue Q and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, or even the crackling showbiz satire of Spamalot and The Producers. I mean the good-old fashioned grand old time offered by the Roundabout Theatre Company's The Pajama Game (* * ½  out of four), the most exuberant revival of a Golden Age musical comedy since Susan Stroman's The Music Man.

Game, which opened Thursday at the American Airlines Theatre, is directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, who shares Stroman's flair for handling classic material with both reverence and joyful ingenuity. This 1954 romp about a pajama-factory superintendent who falls for a union member isn't the enduring marvel that Music Man is, but Marshall milks its considerable charms for all they're worth.

Those charms owe partly to Game's small-town spirit, which Marshall indulges without condescension. Her exhilarating production numbers range from a sexy Steam Heal to a rollicking Hernando's Hideaway.

The latter becomes a showcase for the piano-playing prowess of Harry Connick Jr. Though a bit stiff at first, Connick makes the superintendent's earnestness convincing and wields a self-deprecating charm.

The real revelation here, though, is leading lady Kelli O'Hara, who has brought a sterling soprano and a winsome presence to several fragile ingenue roles. But as the union gal, she's as sharp and sassy as Doris Day in the '60s, and reveals a warm, caressing lower register that builds to a gleaming belt.

Derek McLane's set and Martin Pakledinaz's costumes are similarly yummy, though the real razzle-dazzle is provided by humans onstage, among them Michael McKean and Roz Ryan in savvy comic turns.

After a somewhat lackluster Olympics, it's a treat to watch a Game in which all the players are winners.


USA Today
02/24/2006

Variety: "The Pajama Game"

That sound you hear coming from 42nd Street is the collective swoon of hundreds of women -- and quite a few men -- whenever Harry Connick Jr. eases into a song in "The Pajama Game." With his handsome wholesomeness and those mellifluous Sinatra-esque pipes, it's hard to imagine a leading man more tailor-made for this 1954 show. The really good news, though, is that most everything else in the candy-colored Roundabout revival is equally on the mark, from Connick's beguiling co-star, Kelli O'Hara, to the vocally and comically gifted ensemble.

Much as she did three seasons ago with the same era's "Wonderful Town," director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall avoids any hint of contemporary knowingness, presenting this quintessential '50s fluff for exactly what it is. Marshall's direction favors crispness and polish over innovation. But the respect and affection she shows the material is a tonic, rescuing a delightful show from the obscurity of high school and community theater stagings.

The musical might be set in a factory, against the backdrop of a union battle for a wage increase, but this is no "Norma Rae." It's a familiar guy-meets-girl, guy-loses-girl, guy-wins-girl-back story that's no less enjoyable for its frothiness.

Based on Richard Bissell's novel, "7½ Cents," the book by George Abbott and Bissell plants hunky new superintendent Sid Sorokin (Connick) at the Sleep Tite pajama factory in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as the workers are getting steamed up about an overdue hourly pay increase. Sid falls for Babe (O'Hara), the feisty head of the factory's grievance committee, who correctly predicts a union-management clash between them. Her resistance proves short-lived, but it takes Sid's intervention in the labor dispute to make the on-off romance finally bloom.

Composing team Richard Adler and Jerry Ross spawned only two hit shows before the latter's death from leukemia at 29. "The Pajama Game" and the following year's "Damn Yankees" both stand up a half-century on thanks primarily to their buoyant song scores, which blend earnest romance with satirical comedy and catchy lyrics that refuse to take themselves too seriously. Lines in "There Once Was a Man" like "More than a hangman loves his rope" or "More than a dope fiend loves his dope" must surely be among the drollest romantic yardsticks in the American songbook.

Performed like an Elvis Presley/Ann-Margret number, that rowdy anthem to boundless love, with its whip-cracking, country-flavored yelps, is one of many high points in the breezy first act of "Pajama Game." It also seals the chemistry between Connick and O'Hara, which has been fermenting on a low flame up to that point.

Part of the delay is due to a certain stiffness in Connick's perf that no doubt will vanish as he settles into the role. Taking Sid's seriousness about the new job too literally at first, he glowers from under his '50s quiff, seeming slightly joyless even when he's flirting with Babe. But each time he opens his mouth to sing, the warmth and effortlessness of Connick's vocals help mellow the character.

In his dancing, in particular, he needs to relax and try to have a good time. But in his first theatrical stage role, Connick already is enormously appealing.

If the crooner's satiny handling of songs like "A New Town Is a Blue Town" and "Hey There," his buff physique and matinee-idol looks failed to convince anyone about the wisdom of packaging this revival around him, Connick's virtuoso work at the piano in "Hernando's Hideaway" should dispel those doubts.

A rousing show-stopper, the song starts as a hilarious vehicle for comic dynamo Megan Lawrence, then segues via a playful mock-seduction at the keyboard to Connick's dazzling jazz riffs on the tongue-in-cheek tango number. This extended take on "Hideaway" is the production's most inspired touch, its exuberance and spontaneity making the entire theater crackle with energy.

In a radical switch from her innocent, unguarded role in "The Light in the Piazza," O'Hara's Babe is a prickly, circumspect woman, too smart, principled and sure of herself to dive right into romance despite its gravitational pull. "I don't cross no union line for no moderately good-looking, full-of-himself superintendent," she tells Sid.

With her tidy blonde hairdo and elegant outfits, this Babe is way too chic to be a factory worker, and O'Hara doesn't have the grittiness of the film version's Doris Day. But her natural freshness and pluck, her creamy beauty and winning way with a song make her a joy to watch. She's such an accomplished throwback to triple-threat golden-age musical stars that you start mentally casting her in all kinds of classic tuners. (Calling Bartlett Sher: How about your "Piazza" star as Nellie Forbush in the "South Pacific" revival?)

The supporting ranks also boast strong work. Lawrence makes a daffy caricature of the boss's secretary, Gladys; Michael McKean is suitably twitchy as the factory's time-study man and Gladys' chronically jealous suitor; and Roz Ryan's secretary, Mabel, cuts a sassy figure. Ryan and McKean's easy comic rapport invigorates "I'll Never Be Jealous Again," complete with an amusing soft-shoe routine.

Also entertaining is Peter Benson as Prez, the nerd who fancies himself a womanizer; and Joyce Chittick as tomboyish Mae, the equally nerdy co-worker who struggles to get his attention.

Flanked by David Eggers and Vince Pesce, Chittick gets to sizzle in act-two opener "Steam Heat," which seems somewhat out of character, but hey, it's a musical. Originally danced by Gladys, that number more than any other here is indelibly associated with the iconic choreography of Bob Fosse. While Marshall retains the bowler hats, she broadens the movement beyond Fosse's tight shoulder rolls and robotic legwork; though the result is dynamic, it doesn't stand up to the comparison.

There are also distinct nods to Fosse in "Hideaway," but the dancing in general is higher on vigor than imagination. However, when a show is as solidly staged and performed as this one, it's hard to quibble about lack of reinvention -- or about a second act that could use some pruning.

From Derek McLane's boldly colored, cartoonish sets to Martin Pakledinaz's snazzy costumes to the rainbow tones of Peter Kaczorowski's lighting, the accent is on fun. But ultimately, it's the pleasure of hearing this hit parade of songs, vibrantly reorchestrated by Dick Lieb and Danny Troob, and socked across by a terrific cast that gives the production its persuasive charm.


Variety
02/23/2006

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