Monday, April 24, 2023

"The Pajama Game" at Artistry

Artistry is back, and I think they've got another hit on their hands! After financial troubles that cancelled several shows last fall and winter, they have pulled things together and are currently presenting the first of their three-show 2023 season. The 1955 Tony winner for best musical, The Pajama Game, is a great choice for their comeback. It's a classic musical, of the type they've done so well in their long history, but it's one that's rarely done (I've never seen it). It's light and funny with a sweet love story, but not without significance in its depiction of a union demanding fair wages for workers, and features a great score with a few familiar songs, even if you think you don't know the show. This cast is dynamite, the dancing is lively, and it had me grinning under my mask for the whole show. In fact it's so good, I will happily see it twice. Scroll down for details about a special event - a Pajama Party with TCTB! There's nothing I love to wear more than my PJs, and no better reason for a party than to celebrate the return of Artistry, an important fixture in the #TCTheater community. So put on your best PJs or poodle skirt, and head on down to Bloomington to see The Pajama Game, now through May 14.

We're introduced to the show by Sleep Tite Pajama Factory timekeeper Vernon Hines (the hilarious Carl Swanson), who tells us about the show we're here to see in a fun meta way. New factory worker Sid (Eric Morris) is trying to make a good impression and overcome this "New Town is a Blue Town." The workers are diligently sewing as fast as they can, "Racing with the Clock," and demand the 7 1/2 cent raise that other workers in the industry have received. When the tough boss Mr. Hasler (Justin Cervantes) won't agree, the union declares a work slowdown. This complicates the burgeoning romance between Sid and Babe (Falicia Nichole), who represents the union's Grievance Committee. But never fear, this is a 1950s musical (think Schmigadoon not Schmicago), so a solution is found and everyone celebrates with, yes, a pajama party. Some of the romance stuff is a bit icky - a boss dating his employee, a married man chasing all the girls, an angry boyfriend showing up at work with a weapon - but we're willing to overlook these issues as vestiges of the time because of the fun package they're wrapped up in.

photo by Tommy Sar
The show is co-directed and co-choreographed by Allyson Richart and Ben Bakken, both Co-Artistic
Directors who are part of the team that's worked so hard over the last six months or so to bring the theater back. If this show is any indication, they are a dream team and the theater is in good hands, at least artistically. The show is full of joy and humor, there's no lag or dull moment in the 2.5 hours, the entire ensemble works together fantastically, and the choreography is super fun to watch (with a few nods to original choreographer Bob Fosse). The entire cast (both familiar faces and new) is a joy, and another fun feature of this show is that there are no small parts, everyone gets their moment (or three). There's really not a weak link in this cast, but noteworthy are Serena Brook, stealing scenes as Sid's wise-cracking secretary, and Maureen Sherman-Mendez as Hasler's flirtatious secretary. And of course our star-crossed lovers, Babe and Sid. Falicia Nichole has a warm rich voice and strong and empathetic stage presence. And the only thing better than Eric Morris singing is Eric Morris singing harmony with himself, as he does when Sid records a memo to himself in what is the most recognizable and lovely song in the score, "Hey There (You With the Stars in Your Eyes)." Their Western-feeling duet "There Once Was a Man" is charming and fun.

I did not think I was familiar with this score, written by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, who also wrote Damn Yankees (the latter died tragically at the age of 29 - that's right, he co-wrote Damn Yankees and The Pajama Game before the age of 30). But the aforementioned "Hey There" has made its way into our pop culture, as has "SSSSSteam Heat" (the most Fosse number) and the tango "Hernando's Hideaway" (I guarantee the opening notes will be familiar). #TCTheater artist Evan Tyler Wilson makes his Music Directing debut, gracefully conducting the ten-piece onstage orchestra through this terrific score.

photo by Tommy Sar
Impossibly, costume designer Rane Oganowski is also making her debut, after working as a dresser and wardrobe supervisor for a number of local theaters. The '50s era costumes are so delicious you'd never know they weren't from an experienced designer. The women are dressed in the cutest full-skirted dresses or smart capris (think Laura Petrie), complete with bobby socks and pony tails. From casual picnic garb to fancy evening wear to pajamas (natch), there's a constant parade of bright colorful costumes. Scenic designer Michaela Lochen is also a relative newcomer, having graduated from college just a few years ago. The industrial factory set includes a balcony with two stairways, vintage sewing machines, desks with a working typewriter, and a darling '50s kitchen. Kudos for this new Artistry for discovering and giving opportunities to new talent.

Coincidentally (or not), Artistry's roots (as Bloomington Civic Theatre) go back to 1955 as well. They've long been a breeding ground for new talent, before developing into a professional theater producing great work that goes beyond the classic musicals into edgier fare. We've seen too many losses in #TCTheater recently; I'm so glad Artistry isn't one of them. The Pajama Game is a great start to the new era, a bright new look to a classic musical, and I look forward to watching them grow back into their full potential. Click here for info and tickets, and if you'd like to join the Pajama Party with TCTB, use code PJPARTY to purchase tickets for $30 to the Thursday May 4 performance (full price $56), and stick around after the show for a post-show discussion with some of the artists. And don't forget to wear your favorite PJs!