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At the opening of Davidson Community Players’ The Pajama Game, which runs at Davidson College’s Duke Family Performance Hall through June 29, Professor Hines (Kevin Roberge) warns the audience that this is a “serious drama” about “Capital and Labor.” His tongue is in his cheek, though, and his very next sentence mentions the chance of seeing “a lot of naked women running through the woods.”
There are indeed serious musicals about capital and labor, as well as tongue-in-cheek satires that nevertheless stab pointedly at issues of fairness and exploitation. In the 1930s, Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock took on greed, corruption, and oppression in “Steeltown, USA,” while in the revue Pins and Needles, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union threw sticks and stones at Big Business, bigots, and dictators – dancing and singing all the way.
But The Pajama Game, by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, was written in the 1950s, and in the years between it and The Cradle Will Rock, workers had witnessed a raft of reforms. The 40-hour week, overtime, pensions, and healthcare were by now common in most factories, particularly those in the Northeast and Midwest (The Pajama Game takes place in Iowa). So, as Hines later acknowledges, in this show the “ideas” are really just there to “take the sting off the sexy parts.”
Sid (Bill Caswell) is the new supervisor at the Sleep Tite pajama factory, where Babe (Meredith Swanson) is an active union member who supports the workers’ push for a 7 ½-cent raise. They fall in love, and though their “management vs. labor” status could threaten the romance, the overall friendliness of the factory environment (there is no real anger on the shop floor) and Sid’s cleverness promise a happy ending.
Davidson Community Players was founded nearly 50 years ago, and it is evident from this lively production that it is well established and draws from a wealth of local talent. Everything from the colorful design (set by Anna Sartin, costumes by Jamey Varnadore, and lighting by Bruce Auerbach) to the performance of the large and diverse cast demonstrated consistently high quality.
It is rare in community theatre productions that the singing and acting are uniformly strong among all the characters, but DCP showed no weakness. The score boasts a number of hits, including “Hey There,” “Steam Heat,” “Hernando’s Hideaway,” and “There Once Was a Man.” These songs, and the other less famous tunes, were performed with great musicality and style. Caswell and Swanson, in the romantic leads, conveyed a tender and joyous attraction. Anne Lambert as the secretary Mabel and Roberge’s Hines were wonderfully funny. Like the 2006 Broadway revival, this production moved the performance of “Steam Heat” from the conscientious Gladys (perfectly played by Emily Hunter) to the flirty Mae, and KC Roberge was sassy and sizzling in this Bob Fosse inspired number.
Fosse was the choreographer of the original production, and high-powered dancing was integral to its success (the musical won three Tony Awards: Best Musical, Best Actress, and Best Choreography). Emily Hunter’s choreography for DCP is necessarily simple, but successful, effectively using the rolling racks of cloth and often enhancing the show’s comedy.
While there were no “naked women running through the woods,” the Sleep Tite pajama factory does tolerate a fair amount of hanky-panky among its employees. But these days, it’s not the “sexy parts” that provide the show’s “sting,” it’s the sexism. It’s hard not to wince when Sid, having just met Babe on the shop floor, holds her hand a bit too long and says somewhat suggestively, “You’re the cutest grievance committee I ever had to deal with.” But this is the 50s, and so we overlook the inappropriateness of the gesture, just as we shrug off the fact the Sid did shove a complaining worker, or that Hasler, the company president, has been stealing the 7 1/2 cents owed the workers, or that the union president is running around on his wife. In the end, it’s all in fun, and the Sleep Tite factory is just a big happy family in their jammies.
The Pajama Game continues through Sunday, June 30. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.