ORONO – The game is afoot at UMaine’s Hauck auditorium.
The University of Maine School of Performing Arts is presenting their production of the classic musical “The Pajama Game” – with book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell and music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross – through Feb. 26. The production is directed by Dawn McAndrews, with music direction by Cynthia Sambrano and choreography by Raymond Marc Dumont.
With a Broadway debut that took place back in 1954, this story of labor strife at a pajama factory involving workers’ demands for a raise going unheeded by management has a lengthy history of popular productions – this despite some at-times painfully dated ideas; the gender politics are particularly disconcerting here in the 21st century. However, this production does a solid job accentuating the positives and downplaying the negatives; the end result is an entertaining evening of theater that occasionally offers a reminder of just how far we’ve come.
The Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory in Cedar Rapids, Iowa is going through some internal turmoil. The workers have recently unionized and are trying to get management to agree to a 7 1/2 cent raise. The popular Babe (Anna Giroux) is head of the Grievance Committee and one of the faces of the cause – led by the semi-sleazy union rep Prez (Derreck Schrader) – but she soon finds herself opposite Sid (Curran Grant), the new-in-town factory superintendent.
Sid – at the behest of factory head Mr. Hasler (John Dalton Logan) and efficiency expert Hines (Zachary Peacock) – is trying to keep the factory running, but he soon finds himself at odds with Babe and the other workers. Despite the contentiousness of their working relationship, Sid and Babe are drawn to each other. Other relationships – particularly the combative one between Hasler’s secretary Gladys (Kate Dube) and the jealous Hines – present their own difficulties.
Sid and Babe become entwined and start to fall hard for one another, but as relations break down between the workers and factory management, the obstacles between their two sides grow ever more difficult to surmount. Babe is determined to stick with her principles, leaving Sid to decide whether to be with her or to do his job … or perhaps uncover a way to do both.
“The Pajama Game” does an admirable job in its treatment of labor struggle – the attitude it presents is pretty progressive considering its 1950s origins. The central love story is sweet enough, as are most of the orbiting subplots; the musical numbers are catchy as well.
Unfortunately, the attitude regarding women is very much of its era; that fact colors certain aspects of the show in ways that prove less than appealing to modern audiences, with females sometimes being viewed as objects or possessions or simply lesser.
Still, this production does a decent job of overcoming the pitfalls presented by that attitude, with director McAndrews finding ways to minimize the retrogressive and focus on the progressive. It’s a bright and high-energy production, with a smooth ebb and flow to the action that allows for shifting emotional dynamics without sacrificing pace. The rhythms are well-captured, allowing the show to maintain an engaging fluidity throughout. Dumont’s choreography is a key component; there are flashes of intensity to the movement that are wonderful to watch. And Sambrano has done fine work helping to breathe life into these songs, both orchestrally and in terms of vocals. Numbers like “Steam Heat,” “Racing with the Clock” and “Think of the Time I Save” illustrate a wonderful synergy amongst the production’s leadership triumvirate.
Giroux and Grant are the foundation here; their characters are the foundation upon which the rest of the narrative is constructed. And they do a fine job – both have lovely voices and bring waves of enthusiasm to their performances. Their duet on “There Once Was a Man” is a particular highlight; it is perhaps the best triple-threat (acting/singing/dancing) number in the production. There are slight hiccups here and there, but for the most part, these two youngsters hold it down admirably.
Peacock’s Hines is a bundle of winks and nods that oozes charm; he’s got an easy affability that suits the character – and the show – quite nicely, though his jealousy doesn’t play quite as strongly. Dube is likably bright-eyed and sassy as Gladys; she and ensemble members Nathan Reeves and Jacob Siegel are excellent on the aforementioned “Steam Heat,” perhaps the show’s most well-known number. Logan’s blowhard take on Mr. Hasler is an entertaining one, full of bluster with a hint of desperation. And Schrader does his best with the slimy, sleazy Prez – his performance in the creepily predatory “Her Is” is quite good despite the unfortunate nature of the number.
And as per usual, the School of Performing Arts has assembled a quality ensemble. One of the delights of UMaine’s shows is the ever-present cast-wide commitment; even in a show this size – over 20 deep – no matter where your eye falls, you will see someone utterly immersed in the world of the play. When it comes to energy, vigor and engagement, a SPA ensemble never disappoints.
Dan Bilodeau has once again created a scenic design that balances aesthetics with practicality; his sets tend to visually engage while presenting performative flexibility. This one is no different, big and bold. The lighting design of E-hui Woo is strong as well; particularly effective are the moments when lights are used to shrink the space and create intimacy. Kathleen Brown’s costumes and Katelyn Brown’s hair and makeup are simple and clean.
Again, there are some aspects of “The Pajama Game” that just have not aged well. However, there are also some – the notion of fair wages, for instance – that remain surprisingly relevant. Add in a well-rendered central love story and some engaging song-and-dance performances and you wind up with what ultimately proves to be a heartfelt, toe-tapping night at the theater.