The set-up: When a classic show such as The Pajama Game (1954) is produced with such finesse and sense of fun, as is done by Paul Hope's Bayou City Concert Musicals, now playing through the weekend only, one always wonders why this show is so rarely performed. So, go now and enjoy. No telling when you'll have the opportunity to see it again.
The execution: Surprisingly sexy (it's set in a pajama factory); full of characters you get to know almost as soon as the curtain rises - although at BCCM this is a concert version, so no curtain; using a topical theme that never gets tired (labor vs. management); having a very adult view of love (the romantic lead couple have sex long before marriage); and overflowing with snappy, pop tunes which exist mostly as excuse for their sheer entertainment value ("Hernando's Hideaway," "Once a Year Day," "There Once Was a Man"), Pajama Game is Broadway at its best. For its time, it was state-of-the-art. In its construction and buoyancy, it still is.
How can it miss with a standard like "Hey, There." Recorded by Rosemary Clooney before the show opened, the song shot to No. 1. New supervisor Sid (Cole Ryden) sings of his feelings for union rep Babe (Beth Lazarou) and the improbability of a love affair. He sings into a Dictaphone, then plays the recording back and sings a duet with himself. It's so fresh an idea, we get chills. Who came up with this? Co-composer/lyricists Richard Alder or Jerry Ross? Book writers George Abbott, grand old man of Broadway, or Richard Bissell, whose book 7½ Cents started the show rolling? Young choreographer Bob Fosse, starting his legendary dance-directing career, whose "Steam Heat" number in Act II would set the Great White Way ablaze? Or one of the novice producers, like Harold Prince, perhaps, who would own Broadway as a director in the next two decades? Or, maybe it was co-director Jerome Robbins, who was brought in to oversee youngster Fosse? Whoever thought of it, the clever staging, almost a throwaway, works like gangbusters.
And when you have someone like Cole Ryden sing it, how could it miss? A spirited Woody in BCCM's Finian's Rainbow two seasons back, Ryden bursts into stardom as Sid. His splendid tenor caresses all of Adler and Ross's music as if tailor-made. Silky and smooth, his plangent voice harkens to old radio days, and if some big band leader like Benny Goodman or Tommy Dorsey had heard him, he'd have been their boy singer for sure. His handsome stage presence doesn't hurt either.
Later in the show, Lazarou reprises the song, reining in her natural Ethel Merman-belt into a heartfelt croon. One of Houston musical theater's treasures, Lazarou radiates her own very special star quality, turning hard-edged Babe into a delectable girl-next-door. She can raise the roof in "I'm Not at All in Love," her waltz-like protestation of falling for Sid, sung with her female factory cohorts, or in her duet with him on "There Once Was a Man," the Irving Berlin-like number where they both declare how much they love each other. But when she turns down the Broadway sass, she's just as stunning. Both of them make such an attractive pair, you know the show will have a happy ending.
The supporting characters are as definitively cast as these two leads, a Hope speciality. Jon L. Egging, as efficiency expert Hines, recalls Ray Bolger, with his narrator's sardonic smile and rubber-limbed soft shoe routines. Susan Shofner, as dry-as-gin secretary Mabel, gets a comedy number with Egging in "I'll Never Be Jealous Again," but makes up for the lack of more songs with droll timing and double takes worthy of Eve Arden. Gerald Guitry, as union rep Prez, forever randy and chasing anything that looks once at him, has an easy-going stage charm. He puts across one of the most oddly scanned songs, "Her Is," Prez's credo to anyone in a skirt, as if these lyrics were Shakespearean sonnets. "Her is a kinda doll what drives a fellow bats, isn't her?...Her has a kinda shape what really is the cats, hasn't her?"
Jennifer Gilbert, as harried boss's secretary Gladys, comes into her own in Act II with that definitive Fosse number "Steam Heat," performed with Charles Swan and Mitchell Greco (co-director with Hope) and then in a delectable comedy drunk scene at Hernando's Hideaway, where Sid seduces her into giving up the key to the factory's books.
Here is where I should laud Krissy Richmond, who choreographed this iconic number "inspired by...Fosse." (Melissa Pritchett supplied the musical's other dances.) "Heat" has all his patented moves, props, and idiosyncrasies: bowler hats, angular knees, hunched shoulders, jazz hands, and sex. The number's performed at a union benefit to "keep the heat on" management. It was Fosse's first, great showcase as choreographer. It amazed then; it still amazes, thanks to Richmond's own magical restaging. Under Bryan Nortin's evocative side lighting, the trio's shadows are cast on the proscenium's walls, tripling the hypnotic effect as Gilbert, Swan, and Greco gyrate, tip their hats, and swim backward on the floor.
The three saucy factory girls, Mae, Brenda, and Poopsie, are portrayed with panache by Lydia Meadows, Shondra Marie, and Christine Arnold, abetted by Pat Padilla's '50s era-evoking costumes, which include cone bras, apron shifts, and pleated pants. Blustery factory owner Hasler is nicely blustered by John Raley, who in real life is a successful Houston trial lawyer and amateur thespian. He's a natural on stage, no surprise.
A special word of thanks goes to music director Michael Mertz, conductor Dominique Røyem, and the BCCM Orchestra, whose sweet and lowdown music-making is one of the evening's highlights. The saxes are particularly honey-like.
The sad note in all this is that the young team of Adler and Ross, whose next musical was another blockbuster, Damn Yankees (1955), suffered irreparable damage when Ross suddenly died six months after the premiere at the age of 29. Adler would continue to write music and lyrics, but he never had another hit show.
The verdict: The Eisenhower era is known for many things, but on Broadway it was a golden age. The Pajama Game, smart and witty, is one of the reasons why the American musical conquered the world. BCCM has this one sewn up.
Adler and Ross's iconic musical bounces, shimmies, and shakes through September 15 at Heinen Theatre, 3517 Austen. Purchase tickets online at bayoucityconcertmusicals.org or call 713-465-6484. $25-$50.