Musical Theatre Heritage plays The Pajama Game like its taking them off
Tim Scott has the kind of face caricaturists wish for. Long and lean, with a jutting chin and a forehead as wide as a tire tread, it has more real estate than features to fill it. What’s there, though, is sharp and distinctive, the eyebrows like slashes of permanent marker and the eyes lit with intense comedy. Friendly when he smiles but more convincing when he doesn’t, his face is most naturally expressive of darker moods: boredom, contempt, horniness with a primal edge. His singing voice is of a piece. It’s serviceable on the verses, thin in falsetto, often quavery and earnest in a way that feels schoolboyish, like a delinquent proving how good he can be. But when he yelps up an octave or gets to holler some rock and roll, he commands a wicked shout, one that has redeemed entire evenings of dull theater for me.
Scott’s got that shout, that snarl, and a keen satiric streak. Entertaining between innings at the K, he’ll arch an eyebrow at some silly thing a kid says and win roars from the most depressed fans in baseball. But since the theaters in Kansas City seem to cast by chucking headshots down a staircase, this wild talent keeps turning up in show after show as a choirboy or a beaming best friend.
Look, casting people. Do your town a favor. Catch Scott in Musical Theatre Heritage’s clever re-imagining of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’ frisky classic The Pajama Game. Consider his decision to play the romantic lead as a moody prick. Then notice how air and audience tremble a little during his love scenes with the marvelous Karen Errington — scenes that, as written, should strike us as hopelessly dated. Ask yourself: When was the last time the principals in a musical looked like they actually wanted to tear each other’s clothes off? Ponder: Why, after Scott pouts and belts his way through “Hey There,” does the crowd kaboom?
Please, casting people! Let Tim Scott be wicked!
Scott treats The Pajama Game like it’s On the Waterfront, but director Sarah Crawford treats it like it’s something faintly embarrassing. Instead of staging the show in Musical Theatre Heritage’s traditional concert style, Crawford has given us a fantasy of radioland. The conceit: We’re watching a live ’50s broadcast, complete with professional announcer (MTH founder George Harter), a flashing applause sign and Steven Eubank as a gofer production assistant responsible for coffee and sound effects. This is cute but sometimes distracting, especially at the opening. As the seven-piece orchestra barrels through the overture, the cast mills about onstage, chatting and smoking like they’re in a Robert Altman film. The actors play not just characters but themselves as actors playing the characters — awfully heady for a show boasting lyrics such as I feel like hopping up and down like a kangaroo.
Eventually, the story starts. It’s something about love and labor disputes at a pajama factory, with dumb sex jokes and more hells and damns than in my high school production. During an opening speech, Harter half apologizes for the show’s sitcom-level plotting. It is labored, but the jokes still hit, the music is some of Broadway’s best and the singing is aces.
Near-standards “Steam Heat,” “Hey There” and “Hernando’s Hideaway” are predictable standouts, well-played and excitingly sung. Weaker numbers such as “Once a Year Day” are trimmed; filler such as “Think of the Time I Save” is elevated by Crawford’s skill at arranging voices. Her ensemble — the sewing girls at the Sleep Tite pajama factory — chatters and buzzes amusingly, and the best moments stick: Lauren Braton’s screams and come-ons and Emily Harris’ comic, half-hiccupped dumb-blondeisms as Poopsie.
As Hines, the factory’s “Time Study Man,” James Wright tacks between hilarious and gruesome. Singing “I’ll Never Be Jealous Again,” Hines has to work through how he’d respond to a series of hypothetical situations that seem to indicate his girlfriend is cheating on him. As the music pauses, Wright’s face goes through slow changes, each distinct but building upon the previous. It’s a classic comic bit. Other times, though, Wright’s dim Hines lapses into ignorance.
Making the leap from comic actress to leading lady, Karen Errington retains every bit of her idiosyncratic dazzle. She begs the question: Can the star still steal scenes? Belting “I’m Not at All in Love” she’s as funny as her voice is booming. Later, she blows out her gaskets on “There Once Was a Man,” an ersatz rockabilly number that’s as exuberant a love song as anyone’s ever written. Once she and Scott have whooped their way through it, attacking the song with rock energy, I felt something I have at just one other musical this year: an urgent desire to see that last number again. Walking out afterward, I felt it again, but bigger. I wanted to see the whole shebang again.