by Martha Wade Steketee
Nature provided the steam outside on a Manhattan evening in July, while Broadway veterans generated the theatrical steam heat of 1954’s The Pajama Game in climate-controlled cool at 54 Below, assembled as a concert presentation by musical director Jacob Yates. Annotation and hosting was provided by performer and master of ceremonies Rob Maitner – who, as he said, “believes in the power of the costume change” and entertained us with three different sleepwear styles during the course of the hour-long concert along with almost a score of other performers variously clad.
Maitner talked us through the unsettled conditions at the show’s Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory, the romantic sparks between superintendent Sid Sorokin (Michael McCorry Rose) and union grievance leader Babe Williams (Autumn Hurlbert) who were pretty to look at and pleasant to hear, and the second leads played by Maitner and Lucia Spina, who were fun and buoyant and sometimes stole the show with “I’ll Never Be Jealous Again” and “Her Is.”The stakes in the musical’s book (Richard Bissell and George Abbott) are about a work stoppage over a 7 ½ cent per hour pay increase, but it is actually, these things go, about community and overcoming differences. Yes, it was a time.
The sizeable cast cavorted in various versions of their own pajamas to music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross to varying effect. There were a few show-stopping renditions of serviceable but forgettable tunes, notably “I’m Not at All in Love” delivered by the ensemble women as a light-hearted denial of attractions, a kind of reversed “Boy Next Door” (Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane). There were mostly terrific treatments of tunes that made their way onto the Hit Parade (or “the most downloads” as Maitner translated for the younger set) such as the romantic ballad “Hey There,” delivered with an occasionally wandering sense of pitch, by the achingly handsome Michael Halling, and the comic romp tango-tempo “Hernando’s Hideaway” performed in several locations in the cabaret, beginning in the bar area, advancing through several tables (and men’s laps) and ending up on the stage.
The most compelling original interpretation of the evening was a three act show in one surprising package – Max Pollak’s performance of the show-within-a-show number “Steam Heat.” The book set up is that this song is performed as entertainment in a union rally, a song no one ever forced into the flow of the book of the show. This number with silly lyrics, is usually presented by a trio (two men, one woman) who dance in laconic and angular Bob Fosse style and deliver a rousing, rhythmic intoning of the pressure and release of steam heat – “to keep away the cold.” Pollak performed alone and began slowly, speaking the words. Then mid song, he removed his shirt, slapped his chest, created a percussive experience, and added musical mouth sounds reminiscent at times of Al Jarreau. He became a one-man band with words and syncopation, bringing the crowd into call and response, and culminated his performance with a wild and woolly tap dance.
Rob Maitner deserves special acknowledgement for his informed patter (complete with index cards stuffed with facts about the show and its original creators) and his charming personality on stage, in character and out. From his translation of the weekly measure (on radio then television) of pop tune popularity “The Hit Parade” as “the most downloads” to his off the cuff response to a note that landed well – “I love a well-placed gasp” – this performer had us in the palm of his hand. And the balance of 54 Sings The Pajama Game provided stalwart performers, a score studied and enjoyed together, and several wondrous performances.
54 Sings The Pajama Game took place Sunday, July 17 at 7 pm at Feinstein’s/54Below (254 West 54th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue).