It doesn’t happen until late in Act II.
Not the appearance of Harry Connick, Jr.’s bare, buff chest—something Gotham’s garrulous gossips have been all agog about during the preview period of The Pajama Game, Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of the classic 1954 musical.
His chest arrives at the finale. And yes, he’s pumped; and yes, he looks as comfortable shirtless as a rabbi at a papal conclave.
I’m talking about a comic spitfire named Megan Lawrence.
She plays Gladys, secretary to Mr. Hasler (Richard Poe), owner of the Cedar Rapids pajama factory where he’s locked in a protracted, bitter labor dispute over a seven-and-a-half cent wage hike. Like any canny CEO, Hasler keeps double books, and Gladys, trustworthy to a fare-thee-well, keeps the key to the books around her neck. The union leader, a sassy scimitar of a blonde named Babe (the striking Kelli O’Hara), has been keeping company with the factory’s new superintendent, Sid Sorokin (Connick). After vowing the dispute never divide them, it does. When Sid realizes the key to Babe’s heart sits around Gladys’ neck, he goes for the jugular.
Gladys is also spoken for: Her honey, Hines (the delightful Michael McKean), is the company’s hyper-efficient “Time Study man” who, in unguarded moments, reveals a soul-deep jealous streak. Yet that all matters later, after Sid has romanced Gladys at Hernando’s Hideaway, a speakeasy-style nightclub where the password is “Joe sent us.” What matters most is how Lawrence plays drunk.
Lawrence is a Urinetown alumnus who blew audiences away last summer as saucy Lucetta, sidekick to Rosario Dawson’s Julia in the Public Theater’s revival of the musical Two Gentlemen of Verona. Now she gives a master class on scene stealing. With a voice from the Kristin Chenoweth School of Squeak, her celebration of inebriation is the one moment when Kathleen Marshall’s direction and choreography rise to roof raising. As Lawrence soars—legs up, down; voice up, down; eyes up, down—we roar.
But now, more of Connick. He’s good, yes—but his chest is better.
He doesn’t seem to relax and borders on stiff although his chemistry with O’Hara does peak multiple times, especially during the hormonally charged, hip-swiveling, hillbilly-flavored “There Once Was a Man” and earlier in his pouty, ironic, smoky crooning of “Hey There.” He’s still a big guy who far from fully fits his major-hottie body.
He’s almost ungainly executing Marshall’s choreography, which has clearly been tweaked to accommodate him. Angelic looks, smoldering sexiness, a voice as gruffly smooth as Johnny Walker Blue—they’re there. A great moment in the Hernando’s Hideaway scene is when Connick plays piano, and when, no surprise, his nervousness recedes and he’s swaggering Sid, a guy with shoulders to pique the Packers. So why sing his first number, “A New Town Is a Blue Town,” eyes closed and his back to us?
The George Abbott-Richard Bissell book, derived from Bissell’s novel 71/2 Cents, holds up surprisingly well, and the Richard Adler-Jerry Ross score contains several gems that will likely go overlooked, such as McKean’s charm song, “Think of the Time I’ll Save,” and a song Adler wrote for the show’s 1973 revival on Broadway, “If You Win, You Lose” (Ross died in 1955).
Marshall has correctly set the piece in 1954 and the actors have committed themselves stylistically to whatever that means to them. Her staging of the show’s other great number, “Steam Heat,” is particularly fine, and in it Joyce Chittick, as Mae, sets the house ablaze.
But until Lawrence lifts us as a lush to love, we’re drawn to O’Hara. Even when The Pajama Game’s dialogue reeks of Eisenhower-era coquetry, she makes good on the promise she displayed in Sweet Smell of Success and The Light in the Piazza—and not only can Connick lean on her, she’s a cool drink of water. Personally, though, I’d also like to buy him a Johnny Walker Blue. Just one.