The trouble with revivals in the musical theater is never that the show’s old: If people didn’t love the old show, no one would be reviving it. And the trouble isn’t that the show’s “dated”: The oldness of an old musical is precisely what people love about it; attempts to update the naïvetés of yesteryear usually prove fatal. Musical shows that are great enough and familiar enough can be reinterpreted, like any other masterpiece, but few musical revivals have ever been thorough enough to constitute genuine reinterpretations: Did those loxy “dark” productions of Oklahoma! and Gypsy shed any new light on the substance of either work? That musicals have substance at all, beyond the substance of the immediate pleasures they convey in performance, is actually itself a debatable point.
And that exact point is where the trouble with revivals begins, because the directors and producers who seize on old Broadway shows these days have a misguided motive: not to create an equivalent for the pleasure the show gave audiences in 1956 or whenever, but to compete with it—to put their own stamp on the show, relaunch it as a new “property,” or modernize it into something else. Finding a way, old or new, to reanimate the original joyous impulse is rarely part of their plan. And so, my friends, we got trouble, right here in Hudson River City. Because the one thing today’s revivalists don’t do, and rarely seem to think of doing, is revive. In their hands, an old show lies inert unless its own innate perkiness kicks it awake.
All this generalizing is a little bit unfair to Kathleen Marshall, who directed and choreographed the current revival of The Pajama Game. A seasoned Broadway hand, Marshall has turned out some good work before and does a number of good things here. That the result is a generally pleasant evening, rather than a painful one, must have something to do with her efforts. One could hardly accuse her of not trying to make the classic 1954 show’s old joys come back to life; the main trouble is that she often seems to ignore the common-sense indicators that would tell her how. The Pajama Game is a rich enough work to offer two sets of clues. Like many ’50s musicals, flourishing in the giant shadow of Rodgers & Hammerstein, it has a teasing dialectic: It dresses naturalistically, with “serious” subject matter and down-to-earth behavior, but the song in its heart belongs to the old showbiz days. It is full of numbers that could have thrived in the airier foolery of a 1920s show; songwriters who survived from that era must have envied the young Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, who seemed to play the old game in the new style with such ease. The topic—labor-management troubles in a pajama factory—seems grim for such a playful show, but its creators tipped the original audience a wink early on by making one of their principal villains, the huffy, fanatically jealous timekeeper Hines, an ex-vaudevillian, and casting the role with a beloved song-and-dance man, Eddie Foy Jr., whose name announced his own vaudeville heritage.
Marshall approaches both realism and playfulness in today’s flat, uninflected, utilitarian style. Among the cuts in the inevitably revised script is the jovial prologue—a mock lecture by Hines on the show’s alleged symbolism. Added to the score are some unenhancing pieces of minor Adler-Ross, including an earnest bit of extended arioso that the star, Harry Connick Jr., delivers with the exact tone and facial expression of a performer in a pre-Broadway tryout who knows full well that this number will be cut at tomorrow’s rehearsal. A handsome performer with a distinctive, elegant-crooner vocal style, Connick is both a pleasure and a problem here: His lithe body and sharp features don’t suit the big-bruiser baritone the script evokes, and when not singing, he tends to look uncomfortable; he never inhabits the role of the new factory superintendent, who finds both love and workplace conflict with Babe (Kelli O’Hara), the spunky head of the union grievance committee. Rather than shaping the role to match the qualities Connick brings, Marshall tends to stage past him, as if his name and line readings were enough for her.
That more could be done is shown by the one number Marshall does build around Connick, shoving a chance for him to get down at the piano into the middle of “Hernando’s Hideaway.” The place is meant to be a dark, secretive one, a local roadhouse where several layers of plot hugger-mugger come together, but who’d worry about that with Connick whomping the 88s? The applause, for the only time in the evening, is thunderous and genuine. A director with a more three-dimensional sense of acting might have channeled some of this energy into Connick’s dialogue scenes, and could certainly have made O’Hara’s embryonic but appealing Babe a fuller portrait. The two work well together, but they don’t seem to be having any fun, and fun is this workplace musical’s open-secret agenda.
Which brings us to the last aspect of the trouble: Marshall’s sense of humor, as applied here, seems both drab and programmatic. Michael McKean’s Hines is only a gray, slightly crusty accountant; his obsession, Gladys (Megan Lawrence), is no longer a gamine but a self-consciously weird beldam in a grotesque wig. Mae (Joyce Chittick), who now gets to do Gladys’s “Steam Heat” number, has become the factory tomboy. Only Roz Ryan, as the all-knowing secretary Mabel, manages to create her role and get all the laughs in it without applying a sledgehammer. It’s thanks to her, Connick, O’Hara, and the inherent brightness of the original material that the show doesn’t induce the activity for which pajamas are normally worn.