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Swing Shift at the PJ Factory

The first time I saw the feisty Pajama Game, I was prompting my high school's early-Seventies production of the show, almost twenty years after its 1954 debut on Broadway. I sat through scores of rehearsals until I could recite the book and the lyrics blind. I remember the musical as being funny, silly, and sexy, yet decidedly quaint. Much more "with it" in my teenage mind were the rock-and-roll-inspired shows of the era, notably 1967's Hair and 1971's Jesus Christ Superstar. Time, it turns out, has relegated Hair to a period piece and Superstar to an overwrought spectacle. However, as evidenced by Coral Gables-based Actors' Playhouse's resurrection of The Pajama Game, the years have not diminished George Abbott and Richard Bissell's pithy book or Richard Adler and Jerry Ross's memorable tunes. Yes, the script for this musical comedy about management and labor in a Midwestern pajama factory boasts sexual politics that would provoke a spate of harassment charges in today's workplace. And yet in other ways it's smarter and wittier than I remember it being.

A roster of entertainment greats conspired on the original Broadway production: Legendary showman Abbott directed with help from a young choreographer-director named Jerome Robbins; Abbott's protege Harold Prince, the contemporary theater world's reigning musical king, produced; the inimitable Bob Fosse choreographed; Shirley MacLaine fogged up the windows with her rendition of "Steam Heat," the sizzling song-and-dance number that opens act two; and songmen Adler and Ross went on to write the score for Damn Yankees. Forty-two years later at Actors' Playhouse, David Arisco directs a spirited Pajama Game, although tame performances by leading ladies Irene Adjan and Charlene Clark, plus less-than-swift pacing and choreography, slow down the proceedings at times. A half-step more crackle and pop would have lent the evening the extra snap this revival requires.

When workers at the Sleeptite Pajama Factory in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, press for a seven-and-half-cent per hour raise, management balks and the union threatens to strike. Against the backdrop of these tensions, Babe Williams (Adjan), chair of the workers' grievance committee, falls for management's newest recruit, superintendent Sid Sorokin (Louis Silvers); Sid, from the moment he lays eyes on Babe, makes no bones in public about how he lusts for her. Company man that he is, however, desire doesn't prevent him from firing Babe when she initiates a work stoppage. Over in the main office, factory head Mr. Hasler (Arland Russell) verbally abuses his secretary Gladys (Clark) until she cries. And married union leader Prez (Dan Kelley) leches after man-magnet Gladys at the company picnic until her jealous boyfriend, Hines (Gary Marachek), the factory's efficiency expert, intervenes. Prez eventually scores with factory worker Mae (Aymee Garcia, in a supporting role that turns into a standout comic portrayal). These days such offensive advances inspire plays like David Mamet's Oleanna and real-life dramas like the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings.

Playing Sid as a classic Fifties matinee idol A part Rock Hudson, part James Dean A Silvers delivers song after song in a rich voice that proves especially satisfying on the timelessly romantic "Hey There." Adjan's lovely singing provides a perfect match for Sid's in their "Small Talk" duet, as well as during her solos and ensemble pieces with the factory girls. But she plays it safe with middle-of-the road acting, never convincing us that her Babe is the "cold, hard-boiled gal" Sid finds hard to seduce, or the impassioned lover that hard-boiled veneer hides. Similarly, as Gladys, Clark sticks to a boop-boop-be-doop characterization, not once breaking a sweat during "Steam Heat," a potentially feverish number that, given its uninspired treatment by choreographer Barbara Flaten, is the disappointment of the night. On the other hand, Marachek's Hines, anal-retentive until he has some liquor flowing through his system, lights up the stage with the excellent Cyrilla Baer (as company secretary Mabel) during an exuberant rendition of "I'll Never Be Jealous Again." Also noteworthy: the factory-picnic dance number (performed by the entire cast), which overcomes a sluggish start to end rousingly; and the nicely staged segue from Hasler's office into a darkened nightclub.

Mary Lynne Izzo's whimsical costumes lend the show a garish, almost cartoonish tone that can be visually distracting. In a surprising contrast, M.P. Amico's set design resembles a massive Piet Mondrian painting done in muted colors. In his remarks to the audience just before the show began on opening night, director Arisco expressed hope that the set would do everything it had been built to do, including opening to allow scenery to be rolled out, closing once the scenery was swallowed back inside, and turning around to reveal an entirely new design altogether. The set performed without a hitch and, although the sound system didn't always work on cue and the live orchestra sometimes drowned out the singers, Arisco and his crew are clearly growing more comfortable with the space at the Miracle Theatre in the Gables, which is so much grander than the Playhouse's former home in Kendall.

For an uncompromisingly contemporary theater experience, think about heading to the Caldwell Theatre Company in Boca Raton for Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! Last year's Tony Award-winner for best play, it features eight gay male characters, six of whom appear nude during the course of the show. Love! Valour! Compassion! is scheduled to appear at the New Theatre in Coral Gables from July through September, but if you're a McNally fan or just a lover of well-structured, superbly written work, catching the Caldwell production won't dissuade you from seeing another interpretation later this season. Caldwell artistic director Michael Hall expertly brings the three-act play to the stage in one of its first regional productions since the work closed on Broadway last fall.

The sprawling, ambitious show takes place over three holiday weekends during a recent summer at the upstate New York home of one of the characters. Structurally and thematically, it expands upon McNally's 1991 Lips Together, Teeth Apart. In that two-act play set in a beach house on Fire Island over a Fourth of July weekend, two heterosexual couples confront desire and mortality over hamburgers and fireworks with standard McNally humor, insight, and talky self-explanation. (The beach house has been left to one of the characters by her brother, who died of AIDS).

In Love! Valour! Compassion! the two acts have been expanded to three; the four straight characters have become eight gay men; and the beach house has mutated into a rambling Victorian owned by Gregory, a famous choreographer in his forties facing a creative crisis and the physical consequences of aging that limit all dancers. The action unfolds over Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day weekends. Instead of alluding to a man's having died as a result of complications related to AIDS (Lips), Love! offers two men who are alive but suffering from the disease. As in Lips, and with a nod to Russian playwright Anton Chekhov's great comedy-dramas, the gathering of friends and lovers unleashes emotional upheaval, confrontation, and, ultimately, an affirmation of life and creativity, even as disappointment and loss make themselves abundantly clear.

McNally creates eight distinctly drawn individuals in Love! Valour! Compassion!, two of whom are twins played by the same actor (in this production, they're portrayed by the immensely capable and convincing Anthony Newfield, who strikes only one false note at the end of a complicated scene in which he's required to play both brothers on-stage at the same time). Equally accomplished, the rest of the ensemble includes Thomas Titone as Gregory; Robert Cary as his blind lover, Bobby; Michael Curry and Stephen Joseph as Arthur and Perry, a couple for fourteen years; Alex Montesino as the hunky dancer Ramon, whose youth and brazen sexuality threaten everyone else; and Kraig Swartz as Buzz in the role created on Broadway by the outrageously funny Nathan Lane and then inherited by stand-up comic Mario Cantone. With two hard acts to follow, Swartz interprets Buzz as slightly more cynical and less campy than did his New York predecessors, yet he delivers an affecting performance.

Michael Hall and set designer Tim Bennett do not reinvent the wheel here. The play remains remarkably faithful to the New York show, from the fluid pacing of the direction to the almost exact body types of the actors to the expressionistic set that magically suggests a house, its grounds, and a lake. In this case, however, rather than coming across as a failure of imagination, such allegiance to the original offers us more of a very good same thing.

The Pajama Game.
Book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell; lyrics and music by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross; directed by David Arisco; choreographed by Barbara Flaten; with Louis Silvers, Irene Adjan, Gary Marachek, and Charlene Clark. Through March 17. For information call 444-9293 or see "Calendar Listings."

Love! Valour! Compassion!
Written by Terrence McNally; directed by Michael Hall; with Thomas Titone, Michael Curry, Stephen Joseph, Anthony Newfield, Kraig Swartz, Robert Cary, and Alex Montesino. Through March 31. For information call 407-241-7432 or see "Calendar Listings.


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