by Ann Greer
Director Alan Paul, in his early 30s, was born decades after the 1954 premiere of “The Pajama Game.” But clearly he has an affection and affinity for the musical, and for American musical theater in general. About half of the professional productions he has directed have been musicals, the latest being this one at Arena Stage.
Bridget Riley (Doris), Casey Wenger-Schulman (Carmen), Alexandra Frohlinger (Sandra)
Nancy Anderson (Gladys), Gabi Stapula (Mae) and Heidi Kershaw Quick (Virginia)
in The Pajama Game
“There’s something brash about the American musical theater style,” says Paul in a phone interview. “No other culture has that tradition of heightened emotion, though some, like the British, have adopted it. I love the escapist part, and song and dance is so much fun. It gives a lot of joy.”
“The Pajama Game” pits the Sleep Tite Pajama Factory workers against management, in an effort to get a seven-and-one-half cent increase in the hourly wage. Specifically, it pits new supervisor Sid Sorokin (Tim Rogan) against the head of the grievance committee, Babe Williams (Britney Coleman). Sparks fly, both professionally and romantically.
Tim Rogan (Sid Sorokin) and Britney Coleman (Babe Williams) in The Pajama Game
Paul says that a lot of people know the “Pajama Game” music, but don’t know where it comes from. Songs include “Hey There,” “Steam Heat,” and “Hernando’s Hideaway.” Paul laughs that he’s been serenaded in restaurants with another song, “Seven-and-a-half Cents,” when he tells people about this directing project.
Paul and his team worked to make some of the action more in keeping with contemporary sensibilities. (The musical’s writers were prescient to name the factory boss Mr. Hasler.)
Blakely Slaybaugh (Prez), Britney Coleman (Babe Williams) and cast of The Pajama Game
“The third week of rehearsals, the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke out, and there was no putting that genie back in the bottle, it was one of the lenses that the audience would look through,” Paul says. “I have a lot of strong women in my life, and I was not interested in doing a musical unless women win in the end. That had a lot to do with casting decisions I made. I wanted to make sure to subvert the writing, although maybe it was not intended at the time.”
He got permission to update the big “Hernando’s Hideaway” musical number, and to give more play to Broadway star and “Chorus Line” original company member Donna McKechnie (Mabel) in her dance. When I asked Paul about this casting coup, McKechnie’s Arena Stage debut, he modestly says he simply asked her. At 74, McKechnie’s movement, by the way, is simply glorious.
Eddie Korbich (Hines) and Donna McKechnie (Mabel) in The Pajama Game
Paul says “The Pajama Game” shows that there can be love across the philosophical divide. In the end, the manager and the union representative compromise, showing in the process what it means to come together as a couple.
“The Pajama Game,” book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell, music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross is on stage through December 24, 2017, at Arena Stage. Tickets: arenastage.org or 202-488-3300.
Photos by Margot Schulman.
Ann Greer has covered culture in the DC region for The Washington Post, Capitol File magazine, and WAMU-FM, among others. She was the first online theater critic in the DC region, for AOL Digital City Washington.