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Monday, February 20, 2017

Review of "THE PAJAMA GAME" at The 5th Avenue Theatre — No slumber at this lively party.

The Pajama Game, at The 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, now through March 5, 2017, invites your news-weary brain to slip into something more comfortable. But don't expect to get any sleep. This rollicking musical packs great music, dance, and song into a tale of workplace romance, office politics, and labor union woes, all with a happy resolution. Based on a 1953 novel called 7 1/2 Cents, by Richard Bissell, it portrays both romantic and economic conflicts in a story about the struggles employees of the Sleep-Tite pajama factory face when they ask for a raise in that amount. The company's owner, Mr. Hasler (David Pichette), will have none of it and expects his handsome new hire, Supervisor Sid Sorokin (Josh Davis) to support and enforce his views. When Sorokin falls for the union's Grievance Committee head, Katherine "Babe" Williams (Billie Wildrick), the sexual tension heats up, especially with the two of them on opposite sides of the issue. The story is dated, true, but put it in the context of society in the 1950s, get past the issues, and just enjoy it for what it is.

Sid Sorokin (Joshua Davis) and Katherine "Babe" Williams (Billie Wildrick)  in The Pajama Game at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo credit Tracy Martin

George Abbott and Richard Bissell wrote the book for this musical, which first opened on Broadway on May 13, 1954, winning Tony Awards® in 1955 in three categories— Best Musical, Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical, for Carol Haney, and Best Choreography, for Bob Fosse. Richard Adler and Jerry Ross wrote the music and lyrics for this and their other hit, Damn Yankees, before Ross died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1955. Unlike other teams, Adler and Ross were each both composer and lyricist and contributed their skills equally. Post war musicals, like the era's pop music (not counting rock 'n' roll) had a tamer, more civilized sound than during the Swing Years. The energy of The Pajama Game harkened back to the spectacularly jazzy and lively musicals of the 1930s. Tunes like Steam Heat, Hey There, There Once Was a Manand Hernado's Hideaway thrilled audiences and became hits in their own right. 

Gladys (Sarah Rose Davis) dances at Hernando's Hideaway in The Pajama Game at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo credit Tracy Martin

No group of musicians could have performed these tunes better than the fabulous orchestra at The 5th Avenue Theatre did when I attended on opening night. With musical direction by Joel Fram, this orchestra deserves much of the credit for The 5th Avenue having become the nation's supreme home for musical theater. The 17 members were flawless in their abilities. Even the volume seemed perfect. And speaking of sounds, Sound Designer Ken Travis made magic. Touches like the hiss of steam irons helped bring it all to life.

The company of The Pajama Game at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo credit Mark Kitaoka
Director Bill Berry brought out the absolute best in this talented cast, where even minor parts make major contributions to a production packed full of fun. Here is an Ensemble so full of characters with distinct and memorable personalities. The chemistry of the lead couple felt realistic in their portrayal of the hot and cold, angst and ecstasy of being madly in love.  The first chance to hear Davis sing was his solo number A New Town is a Blue Town. The power of his voice made me eager to hear more. Then, when he and Wildrick sang as a duo, I loved the way their two fine voices seem as made for each other as their characters were. They blended beautifully, which is not always the case. 

Hines (Greg McCormick Allen) and Mabel (Shaunyce Omar) in The Pajama Game at The 5th Avenue Theatre. 
​Photo credit Mark Kitaoka
Other relationships, whether romantic or casual, offered just as much sparkle. Factory foreman, Hines (Greg McCormick) has a serious jealousy problem concerning his flirtatious girlfriend, the boss's secretary Gladys (Sarah Rose Davis). He deals with it (unconvincingly) with hilarious help from the receptionist, Mabel (Shaunyce Omar) in the song I'll Never be Jealous Again. Omar, McCormick, Omar, and Davis all infused their characters with so much personality they will stick in your mind. So will the boss, Mr. Hasler. Pichette gave a fun and fiery performance. So did Taryn Darr as Mae, the hot blooded, redhead union member. Other fine performances were given by Kyle Robert Carter, as the union "Prez," Allen Galli, as Babe's "Pop," and the charismatic Lauren Du Pree in the role of the employee Brenda and as a member of the Ensemble.

Prez (Kyle Carter) and Mae (Taryn Darr) in The Pajama Game at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo credit Tracy Martin
Bob Richard's perfect choreography (including the tap numbers I always crave) contributed so much to the revelation of character and emotion, as much as any singing or acting. Director Bill Berry, in addition to allover excellence in direction, would be the one to thank for the impactful touches of physical comedy so important to the enjoyment factor in this production. This cast is obviously having a great time, and the audience feels that vibe. 

Outside of the non-stop movement and actual dancing, the greatest visual impact came from the wow-worthy set designs, costumes, and lighting, by Carol Wolfe Clay, Rose Peterson, and Robert J. Aguilar, respectively. Wooden posts supporting the roof inside the factory magically turned into the trucks of leafy trees in a park or surrounding a house. Period perfect clothing was a delight, and the lighting used during the scene of the company picnic on a summer day seemed so natural I could almost feel the heat. Other times, as in the nightclub scene at Hernando's Hideaway, creative use of lighting made the mood.

The company of The Pajama Game at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo credit Tracy Martin
Whenever I watch a performance, I think about what it takes, including behind the scenes, to pull a great show together. Everyone involved gives it all they have. However, even as a reviewer who likes to emphasize the positive, I still often observe aspects of plays and musicals that, in my opinion, detract at least slightly. On our long drive home after each show we see, my husband and I discuss and compare our impressions. In this case we heartily agreed that this production of The Pajama Game is a masterpiece, possibly the best musical we have ever seen at The 5th Avenue. Dare I call it flawless? YES! For the first time ever, I will!

I recommend going to the theater's online box office right now to order tickets for The Pajama Game immediately. 

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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

"Room Service" Delivers at Taproot Theatre in Seattle— A Review

Christopher Morson in Room Service at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug
On February 3, Seattle's Taproot Theatre opened its 2017 Jewell Mainstage season with the classic comedy Room Service. It sounded as appealing to me as a bowl of hot soup on that rainy, gloomy evening in this particularly dark winter, and it was. It warmed, cheered, nourished, and satisfied, but with different seasonings than I expected. As with real room service, you don't know until you lift off the shiny domed cover whether or not the order will match the image in your mind. This did not quite match mine, but still pleased me.

Knowing a bit about this work's history will help shape your own expectations. Although its promotion includes references to the famous Marx Brothers, attendees need to understand that the original play inspired the 1938 Marx Brothers movie by that name, not the other way around. 

Daniel Stoltenberg, Erwin Galán and Eric Hampton in Room Service at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.
Written by Allen Boretz and John Murray in 1937, the play Room Service  lifted the spirits of audiences during the Great Depression and became a hit. That success led RKO Pictures to buy the rights in order to produce the 1938 film version, using the Marx Brothers. It was not as successful as other films written specifically for them, or as successful as the original play itself, which ran through 500 performances. Yet, if you are a diehard Marx Brothers fan, you might expect this production's actors to imitate that unique brand of silliness, and be disappointed. Let go of that notion and appreciate it for its own merits.

Mike Spee, Bill Johns, Nikki Visel and Christopher Morson in Room Service at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

Like the movie, Taproot's Room Service, directed by Associate Artistic Director Karen Lund, tells the story of an intrepid theater troupe, high on enthusiasm but short on funds as they try to produce a play. Their producer, Gordon Miller (Erwin Galán), is running up huge bills by housing all of them in the White Way Hotel while he waits to find a financial backer. Coincidentally, the manager of the hotel, Joseph Gribble (Mike Spee) is married to Miller's sister. This relationship puts poor Gribble in a most awkward and stressful position, (made all the more tense by Spee's fine acting) especially after hotel company executive, Gladys Wagner (Nikki Visel) arrives to whip the White Way into shape. She has had enough of Miller's overdue bills and threatens to kick out the whole theater company.

Miller, his director, Harry Binion (Daniel Stoltenberg), and his business manager, Faker England (Eric Hampton) prepare to hastily  leave town when two things happen that give them hope and complicate matters. The young playwright, small town mama's boy Leo Davis (Christopher Morson) unexpectedly shows up at the hotel, penniless and owing money on his typewriter. With no place to go, he stays in a room shared by others who will exploit him in several ways, stealing the typewriter to buy food, and having him fake a serious illness to prevent their expulsion from the hotel. About the same time, Miller's girlfriend, Christine Marlowe (Melanie Hampton) seems to have found a backer at last.

Eric Hampton, Melanie Hampton, Daniel Stoltenberg, Erwin Galán and Christopher Moron in Room Service at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

That backer, a well-known person, is represented by a woman named Sylvia Jenkins (Kim Morris) who arrives for a meeting with Miller to give him a check (that ultimately bounces because she stops payment). Morris's performance in this role was one of the best and funniest in the production, perfect, really. The combination of Jenkin's gushy, lady-like demeanor and obvious lust for young males creates a delightful and engaging character. Morris has also mastered the art of subtlety, making the role all the more enticing by causing one to wonder if Jenkins is really who she claims to be, or is possibly pulling off a trick of her own. In addition to playing the part of Jenkins, Morris also appeared in the smaller role of Thelma Hogarth, a representative of a collection agency, with equally hilarious results.

The tension in this play arises from several sources. Will the money come through in time to keep the troupe from being thrown out on the street? Who will be fired? Will the staged illness and possible (faked) death of Davis result in scandal against the hotel too great for Wagner to risk, thereby forcing her cooperation? Will Davis see his play be produced and successful, solving all their worries? 

Laura Lee Caudill and Christopher Morson in Room Service at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

Many other facets of this fun farce offer good entertainment. A romantic attraction between Davis, and hotel employee Hilda Manney (Laura Lee Caudill) provides awkward moments. A Russian-American actor named Sasha Smirnoff (Bill Johns) wants desperately to audition for a part, to the point of bringing food from the kitchen to the theater troupe's starving leaders in exchange for the opportunity. The talented Johns excelled in this role, as well as three others. He also played Dr. Glass, a bank messenger, and Senator Blake. Stoltenberg, as the director, Binion, was another of my favorites. He could drop a hilarious comment like no one else. Hampton, as business manager Englund, offered some good laughs too, through his goofy character. 

Galán, as Miller, the part played by Groucho Marx in the film version, is not Groucho, nor does he need to be. Without the cigar, monotone voice, and animated eyebrows, this very experienced actor did a fine job of creating his own unique version of a lively character who will do anything to produce the play, even if that involves shenanigans. 

Taproot Theatre serves up this production of Room Service with the perfect place setting. All action happens within a single hotel room complete with just the right furnishings and multiple doors as props. Much of the show's non-stop action involves them opening and slamming shut as character find themselves locked in or out, coming, going, hiding, and escaping. It's madcap fun.

The costume staff, true to my observations at all Taproot productions, did an outstanding job. Lighting, sound, and stage direction were excellent too.

Nikki Visel, Bill Johns and Mike Spee in Room Service at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

If the play has any drawbacks at all, it could be those references to the Marx Brothers and some bits of physical comedy that came close to their style, but still fell somewhat short. The production might have tried too hard to replicate that particular zaniness, unnecessarily, since it can stand on its own.

As a comedy, rather than a drama, Room Service delivers a light meal, but one worth enjoying. It also serves to remind us, as our nation faces uncertainty, that humor helps buoy hope and the arts are critical to any society's collective intellectual and emotional well-being. (So please support live theater!)

The show runs through March 1, 2017. In addition to the regular schedule  (with more than 20 performances remaining as of the date of this post's publication), the theater offers some special events. One is a Valentine's Day performance at 7:30 on Feb. 14. Intergenerational Matinee at 10 a.m. on Feb. 15, followed by an educational post-play discussion. 

Taproot Theatre Company, a professional, no-profit theatre company, is located at 204 N 85th St., Seattle WA 98103 

Box office hours are noon-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Phone (206) 781-9707OX