Granted, it ends not with "Strike! Strike! Strike!" but with a man and a woman sharing the same set of jammies. But "The Pajama Game," the racy-for-its-day 1954 musical about a union official in a pajama factory who gets romantically sewn up with a member of management, always came with a touch of Clifford Odets ambience, a bit of a "Fervent Years" feel. Yes, the signature number is "Hey There," associated more with the Las Vegas Rat Pack than the Haymarket Riots, but this is still one of the very few Broadway musicals ever written about an industrial dispute.
What other show is so obsessed with profit margins and union grievance committees? No less a personage than Jean-Luc Godard once called "The Pajama Game," which features a book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell , and music and lyrics credited to Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, "the first left-wing operetta."
Goddard would not, I suspect, have been delighted with the 2006 revival of the piece that graced Broadway, replete with Harry Connick Jr., and Kelli O'Hara. That production's great strength — and, for the record, the main weakness of Jess McLeod's new production for the Music Theatre Company of Highland Park — was its ability to riff sensually upon another of the gems in the score, "Steam Heat." The plot for "The Pajama Game" might revolve around whether Babe and Sid can find romantic bliss despite the good fight for another 71/2 cents an hour, but Connick's fans, believe me, mostly had their minds on a more aspirational kind of union.
But if McLeod's leads, David Sajewich and Sarah Bockel, never seem entirely comfortable as a lusty couple (especially in that famous pajama-wearing scene), McLeod, working in intimate confines, is far more successful when it comes to evoking the show's grit and social conscience. Notably so. Her factory-floor setting comes with a real edge, and the workers on the assembly line take the job seriously. Indeed, the Act 2 sequence in the park, set during a union picnic, is staged with clear-eyed affection for the men and women who worked so hard to advance workers' rights. Jessica Redish's choreography is invariably outside the usual wheelhouse: Her movement here comes with the jerks of industrialized movement and, in this setting, it serves the material well. Budgets at this emerging company are hardly extravagant — but this is an example of a young director using those challenges to make a show feel raw and true.
Better yet, the show is very well sung under the musical direction of Matt Deitchman: Sajewich, who would be really great if he took a few more risks, has an easy-on-the-ear croon, and Bockel sounds quite lovely throughout. There are also lively comic turns to enjoy from Kelley Abell as Poopsie, Tyler Ravelson as Prez (of the union, natch) and Donald Brearley, playing the intriguing double assignment of Hasler and Pop, the two oldsters who pull the strings.
This is the only full production this season from the Music Theatre Company, an enhancement to the cultural offerings of Highland Park. McLeod and her young cast are certainly not settling for prancing around in PJs — their game is admirably different and worthy of local support.
When: Through May 19
Where: Music Theatre Company, 1850 Green Bay Road, Highland Park
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $40 at 847-579-4900 or themusictheatrecompany.org