It’s not easy being young and talented and beautiful and acclaimed, like Harry Connick Jr. and Kelli O’Hara. Sure, the adulation must be nice—the groupies, too—but these things aren’t always helpful when you’re attempting serious work, or even a Broadway musical.
Though the new revival of The Pajama Game has its charms, the most intriguing part is watching its co-stars struggle to overcome their advantages. Even by the permissive standards of a musical comedy like this one—a tuneful exploration of mid-century labor relations and interoffice romance—can we accept the famous jazz singer from New Orleans as Sid Sorokin, the superintendent of a Midwestern pajama factory, or the fresh-faced blonde with the golden voice as Babe Williams, the no-nonsense union official?
Yes and no. Or, rather, no and almost yes. To play sometimes-shirtless Sid, Connick has undergone a startling physical transformation. The lithe pianist with the floppy-cute forelock has packed on enough upper-body bulk to crush a sewing machine with his bare fists. No disrespect to his trainer, but Connick would’ve fared better to leave his pecs alone and concentrate on his voice. You can’t fault the guy for being attached to his male-torch-singer’s baritone; he’s sold 20 million records with those scoops and warbles. The trouble with torch singers—the trapdoor in their style—is that they really like singing and always sound a little happy about being sad enough to have a reason to do so. As the lovelorn Sid, the crooner isn’t convincing. He somehow makes Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’s songs sound like covers.
Connick doesn’t lack skills, he’s just stuck in a show that exploits them too rarely—in fact, only once. During the fantasy sequence of “Hernando’s Hideaway,” he gets his hands on a piano, and everything changes. All at once he’s captivating, playful, seductive. The interplay between dashing Sid and gaga Gladys (the terrific Megan Lawrence) as he bangs away at the keys is hilarious and exciting—the reason we bother having a musical theater at all. It’s the best thing in the show, and it suggests Connick could do pretty well for himself on Broadway, if he had material better suited to his real, if idiosyncratic, talents.
For sympathy on that score, he need look no further than his co-star, the poster girl for ill-fitting material. Over the last few years, O’Hara’s classic looks and high, lovely voice have thrust her into all sorts of unfortunate ingénue roles. She’s withstood dubious mental impairment (The Light in the Piazza), light sapphism (My Life with Albertine), sucking (Dracula, the Musical), and more sucking (Sweet Smell of Success). Now that she’s moving into grown-up roles, her prospects improve.
O’Hara’s too demure to play an Iowa union official. She channels the voice of Doris Day (who played Babe in the movie) without her rolled-up-sleeves affect. But her voice is so lovely, and stage presence so genuine, you ultimately don’t mind. Plus, O’Hara flashes some new inklings of range and star charisma here. Oh, I thought three or four times as she belted out the rousing “There Once Was a Man” with Connick, I didn’t know she could do that.
Famous singers and pretty people aren’t the limit of this show’s appeal, but they give you a good idea of the rest. Kathleen Marshall has directed and choreographed with a certain flat competence but, outside of the piano business in “Hernando’s Hideaway,” not much inspiration. (Unless you count the giant filing cabinets in Sid’s office, which are either a hilarious echo, or a delightfully insolent send-up, of last year’s debilitating In My Life.) There’s a synthetic quality to it all, not least in the excessive amplification: From the first note, the show is loud and lifeless.
But it’s also a question of what’s being amplified. The ground rules of musical comedy stipulate that the story needs a couple brittle supporting characters. Marshall enlists a troupe of them, each shallower and more grating than the last. Connick and O’Hara may appear on the Playbill cover, but I’ll remember a different image from this show: Thanks to their curiously similar elfin features and plastic eyewear, the show’s nerdy comic duo, Prez and Mae, enact courtship scenes that struck me as watching Elijah Wood seduce himself.