Audible gasps and wolf whistles greet Tim Rogan’s entrance, shirtless, in the show-closing title number of the rollicking Golden Age musical The Pajama Game (★★★★). By that time, Rogan, possessed of greater assets than just a chiseled physique, has earned healthy rounds of applause from the Arena Stage audience, for his winning, wonderfully sung turn as lovestruck factory superintendent Sid Sorokin.
Billed as a battle of the sexes, The Pajama Game, featuring music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, is really more of a celebration of boy-girl romance and attraction, set within the contentious context of a labor dispute at the Sleep-Tite pajama factory. The working women and men of the Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based manufacturer might lock horns over workplace gossip, but they stand mostly united against clueless Sleep-Tite owner, Mr. Hasler (Edward Gero) in their pursuit of an all-important 7.5-cent raise.
Fighting the fight for management, Hasler has city boy Sid, his third superintendent in a year. Fighting his own impulses, Sid has his hands full facing employee advocate and head of the factory Grievance Committee, Babe Williams, a role Britney Coleman imbues with heart and pluck.
It’s a damn plucky production all around, thanks to focused direction by Alan Paul, well-plied physical comedy, a dazzling puzzle box of a set from James Noone, and a pair of leads who duet beautifully, spar spicily, and dance passably.
The show deploys stronger dancers amid a deep-bench ensemble that includes A Chorus Line Tony-winner Donna McKechnie as Sid’s vivacious secretary, Mabel, and Eddie Korbich, a delight in every moment as Sleep-Tite’s tap-happy timekeeper, Hines. As the factory’s union president, Prez, Blakely Slaybaugh resembles a young Stanley Tucci, dances like a sexed-up Ray Bolger, and nails his big number, “Her Is,” alongside Nancy Anderson’s daffy Gladys Hotchkiss.
Slaybaugh and Anderson, “Steam Heat” dancers Tony Neidenbach and Jay Adriel, and the rest of the cast, are fabulous purveyors of choreographer Parker Esse’s flirty, Fosse-inflected moves. The impressive jump and jive of “Hernando’s Hideaway” and the PG-rated sizzle of “Steam Heat” deliver pretty much as intended.
What the production doesn’t exactly deliver is a profound sense of place, visually or vocally, despite the contributions of good sound design and colorful character-defining costumes. The original score and story conjure a unique atmosphere of friction between post-WWII industry and country picnic Americana, but on this stage, the period and place register largely in exaggerated, cartoonish terms. Ultimately, the show’s investment in what might become of the workers’ struggle feels subsumed by the will-they-or-won’t-they of Babe and Sid. (Guess what? They will.)
For a few brief moments, director Paul does dangle some suspense, and Coleman makes her gorgeous reprise of “Hey There” ache with doubt and longing. But there’s no denying, nor is there really much preventing, the sparks her Babe and Rogan’s Sid set off whenever they argue on the factory floor, or cuddle in her kitchen. They’re a match as made for each other as pajama tops and bottoms.
THE AUDACIOUS OPENING act of Caryl Churchill’s modern classic Top Girls assembles a millennium’s worth of female power, pain, and wisdom at one lively dinner party. Setting the mood for a story focused on modern career woman Marlene (Karina Hilleard), Churchill enlists five larger-than-life female figures — real and fictional, legendary and literary — to voice the struggles and conquests of women throughout history.
An emperor’s concubine swaps stories with a 19th-century free spirit, while a female pope breaks bread with a lady who led a legion of looters into hell. Wine and laughter flow around the table, and all roads of experience lead to ’80s single lady Marlene.
Like Churchill’s fabulous feast, where one guest arrives late, director Amber Paige McGinnis’ staging of Top Girls (★★★½) at Keegan takes a few moments to feel fully engaged. Then, as Lady Nijo (Alexandra Palting), Isabella Bird (Susan Marie Rhea), Pope Joan (Jessica Lefkow), Griselda (Amanda Forstrom), and Gret (Caroline Dubberly) reveal their shared history of abuse, of having their babies taken from them, or of overcoming their oppressors, the camaraderie clicks.
The director and ensemble pinpoint the rhythms of community — the support, commiseration, and competitiveness — that Churchill’s script captures so well. That convivial spirit creates a comforting space for the rage expressed in Dubberly’s mostly silent performance as Gret, or the hurt projected by Palting’s naive Lady Nijo, who doesn’t much distinguish between being with her man and being raped by him. The ladies’ strength and independence is heartily exemplified in Rhea’s rousing turn as trousers-clad traveler, Bird.
Hilleard, meanwhile, makes a riveting Marlene, leading the story forward into Thatcher’s England, where she and several other ladies toil at a London employment agency. Again, McGinnis and the cast mine sharp comedy from the rapport of Marlene and her mates, while delivering pointed portrayals of several female clients who seek better prospects at the agency.
Here, Rhea veers impressively from embodying bon vivant Bird in the first act, to depicting the desperate wife Mrs. Kidd, who comes to the employment agency advocating for her husband’s promotion at the cost of another woman’s progress. Not every member of the cast so adeptly disappears from one character to the next, and Rhea later uncovers an even more compelling layer as Marlene’s sister, Joyce, a cleaning lady who clashes with the exceedingly driven Marlene.
Divided by class, ambition, and the politics of Us versus Them, Joyce and Marlene encompass many of the attributes and flaws laid out along Churchill’s spectrum of “top girls.” Hilleard and Rhea both dig in deep to plant Marlene and Joyce’s respective demands for dignity, and there’s a savage kind of love in their fight over Joyce’s daughter, Angie (Dubberly), who idolizes her aunt Marlene. Their searing confrontation provides a fitting final roar of emotion, that’s then deflated somewhat by a shaky coda.
Yet what lingers is the intensity of sisterhood conjured by Marlene, Joyce, and all the ladies, present or merely evoked, that join them at the table.
Top Girls runs to December 2 at The Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. Tickets are $35 to $45. Call 202-265-3767, or visit KeeganTheatre.com.
The Pajama Game runs to December 24 at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW. Tickets are $50 to $99. Call (202) 488-3300, or visit arenastage.org.
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