Poodle Skirts, Elvis and Labor Relations

by Alan Kozinn


One of Beverly Sills's innovations as general manager of the New York City Opera has been the introduction of musical-theater works into the opera house. Her endeavors along these lines have not met with consistent success, partly because opera and musical theater are only distant cousins, despite superficial similarities, and music composed for one form is awkwardly served by voices trained to sing the other.

So for The Pajama Game, her last production before she reitres next week, Miss Sills has pulled out all the stops by filling the principal roles with singers whose resumes list more experience on Broadway than in opera.

The show opened Saturday evening at the New York State Theater, in a production that captures and magnifies the garish fluffiness of the 1950's in a fresh , amusing way. In this period piece one finds Hula-Hoops, poodle skirts, saddle shoes, plaid slacks, beatniks and even Elvis Presley. There is also a collection of enduring tunes, put across by a strong cast that moves and sings in the spirit of the genre.

The Pajama Game, which was a Broadway hit in 1954 and was made into a film in 1957, is based on Seven and a Half Cents, a novel by Richard Bissell, who collaborated with George Abbott on the show's book. Its words and music are by Richard Adler and jerry Ross.

The work is about the Sleep Tite pajama factory, where workers fighting for a raise of 7 1/2 cents and hour have been put off by management's assertion that costs are rising and competition is stiff. Complicating matters is the blossoming romance between Sid Sorokin, the new plant superintendent, and Babe Williams, a committed union official.

There is a lightheartedness, even a touch of parody in the unfolding of the tale, and the show's 17 songs and dance numbers (not counting reprises) do not advance the action so much as freeze time to highlight emotions or provide comic turns when the plot threatens to veer toward sobriety. There are gems among these, a few of which (the sentimental "Hey There," the jazzy "Steam Heat" and the tango-like "Hernando's Hideaway") have won lives of their own.

Judy Kaye sings Babe's music with power and charm and creates the character touchingly. Richard Muenz, as Sid, her lover and adversary, is slightly drier vocally, but equally sympathetic. In the comic roles, Avery Saltzman is a spectacularly frenetic Hines, and his duet with Brooks Almy (as Mable), "I'll Never Be Jealous Again," is a delight. David Green is a slippery but likeable Prez. And if Lenora Nemetz sings raspily as Gladys, her dancing is one of the highlights of the performance.

There is a certain fascination with the mechanics and atmosphere of the score. The overtures - heavy on the wind and brass, with fleeting moments of lugubrious string passages, and textures filled out with a banjo, piano and percussion - are full of the sleek, na´ve ebullience of their era. Peter Howard conducted a driving performance that spotlighted these qualities and offered solid support to the stage.

Michael Anania, the set designer, and Marjorie McCown, the costume designer, did a brilliant job of pulling together the bright, clashing colors and other goofy elements of 50's style to match the archaic vernacular forms of both the music and the text. And Theodore Pappas, in his staging and choreography, paid tribute to the styles of the original production team (Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse) wihtout adhering slavishly to their blocking. Best of all is the "Jealousy Ballet" in which Hines envisions Gladys in trysts with a handful of the era's pop icons.

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