By Colin Douglas
For those of us who grew up during the Eisenhower years, the songs from Richard Adler and Jerry Ross‘ The Pajama Game score provide a blast from our past. Haunting ballads like “Hey There,” as well as sexy, catchy novelty tunes such as “Steam Heat” and “Hernando’s Hideaway” were all familiar standards often heard on the radio.
George Abbott’s dramatic collaboration with author Richard Bissell on his novel, 7 1/2 Cents, turned into 1955’s Tony Award-winning Best Musical. The show has been revived twice on Broadway (the latest 2006 version starred Harry Connick, Jr. and Kellie O’Hara) and has become a staple with regional, community and educational theatres. The reasons are many, as demonstrated in Linda Fortunato’s magnificent production, now playing at Theatre at the Center in Munster, IN.
Although set in the innocent, by-gone world of “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It to Beaver,” this love story between management and worker, with a nod to the power of organized unions, is still very relevant today. In a small-town Iowa pajama factory, Sid, the good-looking, new plant supervisor, while trying to demonstrate his leadership potential, falls in love with Babe, the attractive, strong-minded Grievance Committee leader. When Mr. Hassler, the company’s CEO, refuses to grant his hard-working employees a seven-and-a-half-cent an hour raise that would keep them competitive with other factories, the union decides to strike. The resulting disagreement between management and workers naturally creates a riff between Sid and Babe.
Other significant characters who populate the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory include Vernon Hines, the company’s tightly-wound efficiency expert; Gladys, Vernon’s girlfriend and Mr. Hassler’s charming, devoted personal secretary; Mabel, Hassler’s mother hen senior secretary; Prez, the unhappily married union head with a wandering eye for the ladies; and several other assorted stitchers, repair workers and salesmen. Ms. Fortunato has kept the size of her cast modest and manageable, employing just 14 versatile, superbly-talented triple-threats to play multiple roles, filling the Theatre at the Center stage with a joyous musically entertaining evening of theatre.
Beautiful, brassy Elizabeth Telford, whose Chicago credits are numerous and impressive, is the complete package as Babe. Telford brings the necessary toughness to this role, while still offering moments of sincere vulnerability and genuine caring, seen primarily in scenes with Sid and her father (lovably played by Rick Rapp). But this gifted actress can deliver a song with power, clarity and real passion, especially “I’m Not At All in Love” and the country/western-flavored, “There Once Was a Man.” Newcomer Curtis Bannister brings an honest, truly likable, earnest quality to his portrayal of Sid, but it’s his gorgeous voice that impressed the opening night audience and all but stopped the show. His renditions of “Hey There” and “A New Town is a Blue Town,” dazzle and delight. There’s no doubt that Chicagoland audiences will be clamoring to see and hear more from this accomplished performer in the near future.
But the evening is filled with impressive performances, not the least of which comes from the perfectly-cast Jason Grimm as Hines, the company’s fastidious timekeeper (“Racing With the Clock”). While meticulous at his job, Hines harbors a jealous streak; and the phenomenally talented Kelly Felthous, as his vivacious girlfriend, Gladys, knows how to deal with his unfounded suspicions. She finally has a few drinks and lets down her hair in a terrifically danced and sensationally sung production number at Hernando’s Hideaway. Cynthia F. Carter, who wowed audiences in Black Ensemble Theatre’s “Mahalia Jackson: Moving Through the Light,” gets to show off her comic chops as Mabel. She’s especially funny in her duet with Jason Grimm, “I’ll Never Be Jealous Again.”
William Underwood’s superb musical direction and his four-piece, backstage orchestra is rich and rollicking, and delivers full-sounding accompaniment for his cast. The show’s choreography by Christopher Chase Carter is inventive, precise and cleanly executed. He makes numbers like the joyous “Once-a-Year Day” company picnic and his stylized, assembly line precision of “Racing with the Clock,” so much fun. Kudos, especially, go to Carter’s talented six-member ensemble, led by dance captain Matt Casey, who continually infuse this show with their energetic moves. Nicely lit by Guy Rhodes, Jack Magaw has designed an all-purpose stage setting that seamlessly shifts between the factory workroom, various inner offices, Babe and her dad’s modest home and a number of other locations. Kevin Barthel’s wigs and Brenda Winstead’s colorfully fashioned wardrobe of costumes simply shout, 1954 Iowa.
Fortunato has beautifully staged this charming, retro love story that supports the old adage that opposites often attract. The show also offers a reminder of the importance of American unions, while offering a pleasurable stroll down a memory lane of musical hits. Possibly one of the finest productions in recent memory at Theatre at the Center, this gifted cast and company delivers a wonderfully entertaining evening for Autumn that’s as cozy as a pair of warm jammies and definitely not a sleeper.
Theatre at the Center presents “The Pajama Game” through October 13 at 1040 Ridge Rd., Munster, IN. More information and tickets are available here.