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BWW Reviews: Mason and Ashley Shine In Lipscomb Theatre's Sparkling PAJAMA GAME

If for no other reason than to witness the inspired pairing of Kristi Mason and Tyler Ashley as Babe and Sid, Lipscomb University's The Pajama Game-directed by Beki Baker, choreographed by Justin Boccitto and with music direction by Janet Holeman-is a theatrical treat; an exuberant, nostalgic and tuneful take on a classic American musical from the middle of the last century.

With music by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (who a year later would provide the score for Damn Yankees), and a book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell (based on the latter's novel 7-1/2 Cents), The Pajama Game focuses on the machinations of labor and management at the Sleep Tite Pajama Factory in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where the workers have long been overworked and underpaid. Though it might sound like an odd inspiration for a musical-but then, so does the story of an Englishwoman journeying to Siam for a teaching gig or a poor Frenchman sentenced to a chain gang for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family-it provides the structure for some of Adler and Ross' best songs and offers LU theater students the chance to shine in the spotlight.

Mason and Ashley-who in real life are engaged to be married next summer-are wonderfully paired as the musical's central characters. Mason's Babe is a factory worker who chairs the company's grievance committee, is active in the union and is a charming, sharp and clever blonde beauty. Ashley's Sid is the new, no-nonsense factory superintendent, a hardworking average Joe-er, average Sid-and a handsome and strapping young man who sets his sights on Babe the very moment he first sees her. With their offstage chemistry transferring beautifully to Lipscomb's Collins Alumni Auditorium stage, Mason and Ashley provide the production with much of its spark, aided and abetted by an enthusiastic, committed ensemble of performers assembled by Baker and her creative team.

Baker's focused direction moves the play's action along at a good pace and there's no denying the charms of the almost-60-year-old musical. However, there's some muddying of the issues (which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but which some first-time viewers might find confusing) that softens the plot's focus and the message intended by the show's creators in 1954. Clearly, The Pajama Game is a product of its times-can you imagine a musical about union workers being greeted with such enthusiasm nowadays?-but it is that which makes the story all the more relevant for today's audiences.

In Baker's staging, some of the details are lost amid the rather confectionary trappings of musical comedy: Hines, the company's efficiency expert, seems kinder and gentler despite his rampant jealousy; the flirtiness of Gladys, his girlfriend and the secretary to the company's boss, is fairly repressed; and the roles of Prez and Mae seem reconfigured-he's not married and she's more goofy than manipulative. As a result, much of the plot's labor/management conflict seem more contrivance than dramatic necessity.

Still, The Pajama Game is a fun and entertaining diversion, offering up some onstage portrayals that are noteworthy and a performance of the score by a remarkable 20-member orchestra under conductor Steve Rhodes' confident baton. Make no mistake about it, this is how the Adler/Ross score was meant to be heard and Rhodes' pit musicians display flair, precision and capability.

Add Boccitto's polished choreography to that mixture of good actors, exceptional orchestral accompaniment and focused direction and you have a successful recipe for a night of theater. Boccitto's clever blending of his own steps along with some of the iconic movement created by Bob Fosse for the original Broadway production (the deliciously unique "Steam Heat," here performed by Sydni Hayes, Anne Elisabeth Poe and the extraordinary Austin Hunt) ensures that The Pajama Game will live on in your memory as much for its dancing as for its full-out, Broadway-caliber singing (congratulations to Holeman for her expert work with her student charges).

Together, Boccitto and Baker create some terrific onstage moments that are eye-poppingly colorful and exuberant and which showcase the talents of designers June Kingsbury (her period costumes are gorgeous), Andy Bleiler (who created the superb sets) and David Hardy (whose lighting continues to impress as easily as it illuminates the stage).

As Babe, Mason continues to show growth as an actress, her commanding stage presence lending even more credibility to her character. Ashley, who quite frankly has never sounded better, matches Mason's onstage performance in its intensity and together they create completely believable characters. Mason sounds terrific, backed by the women of the ensemble, on "I'm Not In Love At All," while Ashley shines in "Hey, There" and "A New Town is A Blue Town." Together, they perform the crowd-pleasing "There Once Was a Man" (written, though uncredited in the manuscript, by Frank Loesser, as is "New Town…") with such vigor that it is sure to gain a permanent spot in your own personal hit parade of musical theater standards.

Mason and Ashley also lead the ensemble's spirited performance of "Once A Year Day," which electrifies the audience with its unbridled sense of whimsical escapism.

Baker has intelligently surrounded Mason and Ashley with a coterie of some of LU Theatre's best actors: Andrew Johnson is terrific as the officious, if rough around The Edges, Hines; Justin Tays is ideally cast as the gruff company chief Hasler; the versatile Grafton Thurman makes the most of his time onstage; and Elijah Wallace is quite good as union leader Prez.

But it's the women of the ensemble who demand your attention with their presence and keep it with their sharply drawn performances. As factory workers, Stefani Paige and Emily Faith are gorgeous and committed, while the usually glamourous Leslie Marberry (who drips with leading lady elan most of the time) plays against type as the bumbling Mae.

Tiana Turner, as Sid's secretary (remember, this was in the pre-assistant days), very nearly steals the show with a broadly comic performance that remains wonderfully nuanced and underplayed. Her performance of "I'll Never Be Jealous Again," in which she attempts to convince Hines (Andrew Johnson) that his green-eyed reaction to Gladys' outgoing personality is misguided, is nicely rendered by both actors.

Sydni Hayes, one of the LU theatre program's most accomplished young actors, adds to her already burgeoning resume with her performance of Gladys and, with Poe and Hunt, she makes "Steam Heat" her very own. In addition, her duet with Wallace-"Her Is"-is delightfully witty, with both actors giving their all to the number. Hunt makes his own notable contributions to the proceedings with his stylish dancing and, like so many others in the cast, he exudes confidence and that indefinable quality we most often refer to as "presence."

The Pajama Game's abbreviated run (just four public performances in four days) means that time's a-wasting to get your tickets for the remaining two shows tonight and tomorrow afternoon.  So get to it! You'll be glad you did.

From This Author - Jeffrey Ellis

Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 35 years. In 1989, Ellis and his partner l... (read more about this author)

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