The Pajama Game is a classic, a Broadway mega-hit with themes and tunes as timely as today’s news.
The show is currently a wonderfully realized, dynamic production at the Fichandler Theater in the round at Arena Stage at the Mead Center in D.C.
If this show could be bottled, customers would empty the shelves in two minutes. With its plot, incredible casting, timeless songs, amazing dance numbers and wacky characters, it is a must-see show.
The original musical, which debuted in 1954, and the 1957 movie, made stars of several cast members including Shirley Maclaine. Both were based on a 1953 novel 7 ½ Cents by Richard Bissell. The show’s book was written by George Abbott and Richard Bissell, with music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross. Bob Fosse was the original choreographer.
In this version, Donna McKechnie, who won a Tony for Best Actress in a Musical for her role in A Chorus Line (another blast from the past), got a loud round of applause when she first appeared onstage at Mabel, Sid’s secretary and a mother figure to the factory workers.
The show focuses on the employees, administrators, and owner of a pajama factory in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and their interaction around an important salary issue. The unionized garment workers have been asking for months for a 7 ½ cent hourly raise. They are being ignored, and the situation is about to ignite.
To put it in context, $1 in 1954 is equivalent to $9.13 today so workers demanding a 7 ½ cent hourly raise was not insignificant, though the song performed by the cast, “Seven-and-a-Half Cents,” seems hilariously funny by today’s standards.
This dazzling show was directed by Alan Paul and choreographed by Parker Esse. James Cunningham is the music director, James Noone designed the imaginative sets, Costume Designer Alejo Vietti was the creative genius behind the costumes that captured the period, accented with nearly two dozen wigs by Anne Nesmith, while lighting and sound were designed, respectively by Robert Wierzel and Daniel Erdberg.
In a show replete with head-turning features – including the leading man, DC native Tim Rogan as the Sleep-Tite factory supervisor Sid Sorokin – the set and staging were designed to provide a 360-degree experience for the entire audience. No one’s view of a scene is obscured.
Beneath a phalanx of lights contained in a large, faux brick box suspended overhead, the floor eerily turns from a light red to a deeper tone, and then into a greenish yellow shade. Electric billboards beaming “Sleeptite,” factory clock faces and office lights also drop out of the box from time to time.
The show begins with several factory sewing machines and garment steamers rapidly rolled into place by the cast. They sing “Racing with the Clock” while stitching up a storm, tossing rolls of printed silky fabrics about, and setting off the steamers as Vernon Hines (Eddie Korbich) complains they are not moving fast enough.
In between, they chatter and gossip about the new supervisor, Sid, who arrives in the middle of the factory floor.
In any decade, Sid is quite an eyeful. You can sense his muscular physique beneath his crisp shirt, tie and dress slacks. He has flashing eyes, a chiseled jaw and creates instant rapport with the workers. Then, he opens his mouth to sing “A New Town is a Blue Town.” Folks, he has a rich, knockout voice filled with emotion.
His equal turns out to be Katherine “Babe” Williams (Britney Coleman), the leader of the Union Grievance Committee. When her co-workers josh her, insisting she’s interested in the new supervisor, Babe’s rendition of “I’m Not At All In Love” blows the audience away. The two, though on opposite sides of the wage increase fence, quickly fall in love and sing the classic hit “There Once Was a Man.”
There are other characters that bind this show together memorably: Hines is a jealous man, who throws knives when he’s upset or drunk; Edward Gero is “Old Man” Myron Hasler, the stingy, mean, strict owner of Sleeptite who keeps his production ledger under lock and key. What’s he hiding?
The creepy Prez (portrayed by the rubber-limbed Blakely Slaybaugh), the union head, is married but fools around. There was one dance move by Slaybaugh that caused a universal gasp among the audience: he seemingly fell backward, rolled up over his head, and landed flat on his face. Then sprang up and continued the dance. The objects of his desire included Nancy Anderson as Gladys Hotchkiss, keeper of the boss’ key; and Mae (Gabi Stapula). Elliot Dash plays Babe’s kindly, understanding and intuitive father.
The entire cast performed flawlessly with beautiful voices and head-turning dance moves — and more than a hint of the old Bob Fosse energy resurrected by Choreographer Parker Esse – at the speed of light.
Give yourself an early holiday present and go see this show.
Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes with a 20-minute intermission.
The Pajama Game plays through December 24th, 2017 at the Finchandler Stage at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater – 1101 Sixth Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 554-9066 or go online.