Carousel, Funny Girl, My Fair Lady, Oklahoma!, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, South Pacific … Probably no local Civic Light Opera so consistently revives classic musical comedies from Broadway’s Golden Age as Downey CLO, and their first-ever production of 1954’s The Pajama Game is one of their best revivals ever.

 Richard Bissell’s novel 7½ Cents forms the basis of George Abbott and Bissell’s clever book, those 7.5 pennies turning out to be the hourly pay raise demanded by workers at Cedar Rapids’ Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory, a salary increase factory owner Myron Hasler staunchly refuses to grant them despite persistent union demands.

If this seems more than a tad solemn a topic for a musical, think again. The Pajama Game has been delighting audiences for nearly six decades now with its blend of comedy, romance, and one hit Richard Adler-Jerry Ross song after another, including ‘50s standards “Hey There,” “Steam Heat,” and “Hernando’s Hideaway.”

Sid Sorokin, the factory’s newly arrived superintendent, and Babe Williams, head of the grievance committee, provide the requisite romantic sparks, surrounded by some of the most colorful supporting characters in Broadway history, making The Pajama Game both a star vehicle and a richly-populated ensemble piece.

While Sid (Michael Dotson) and Babe (Karen Volpe) duke it out over that 7½-cent raise, proving once again that the course of true love never did run smooth (particularly when labor loves management), other factory workers have their own subplots to keep audiences captivated from Overture to Grand Finale.

 There’s factory timekeeper Vernon “Hinesy” Hines (Karl Schott), who despite promises to secretary Mabel (Brittany Rodin) that “I’ll Never Be Jealous Again,” keeps seeing the green-eyed monster whenever his sexy girlfriend Gladys (Nicole Manly) even looks at another man, most especially roving-eyed union head Prez (William Crisp). Other featured characters include factory worker Mae (Jenny Vaughn Hall), another of Prez’s would-be conquests; traveling salesman Max (Timothy Hearl); Sleep-Tite seamstresses Rita (Carrie Millard), Brenda (Laura Rensing), and Poopsie (Lindsay Gitter), who don’t believe a word of Babe’s protestations that “I’m Not At All In Love”; and factory boys Sam (Greg Hardash), Charley (Christopher Curry), Pete (Sean Williams), and Joe (Conor Tibbs). Completing the cast of prominently featured characters are mean old factory head Myron “Old Man” Hasler (Ed Krieger) and Babe’s kindly stamp-collecting Pop (Michael McGreal).

 Executive producer Marsha Moode directs with her accustomed flair, her stellar leads and supporting players delivering some topnotch performances, beginning with two-time Scenie winner Volpe, proving that this “Funny Girl” can play a romantic lead with the best of them, sing hit after hit in her splendid belt of a voice, and look darned cute and sexy in one ‘50s outfit after another. Dotson, one of the Scenie-winning stars of last year’s The All Night Strut, provides stalwart romantic support, and sings Sid Sorokin’s songs in quite possibly the best leading man tenor I’ve heard on the Downey CLO stage. Together, the dynamic duo shine and sparkle in “Small Talk” and “There Once Was A Man,” while separately both stars get to solo “Hey, There.” (Correction: Dotson duets it with himself on Dictaphone.) And if Dotson’s gorgeously sung “A New Town Is A Blue Town” sounds more than a bit Guys And Dolls-ish, it’s no wonder since it was ghost written by none other than Frank Loesser, as was “There Once Was A Man.”

Schott is an adorably quirky Hinesy opposite Manly’s delightful Gladys, kissin’ cousin to her ditzylicious Kitty in The Drowsy Chaperone but no carbon copy. The marvelous Crisp adds hound dog Prez to his list of memorable Downey CLO creations, while Krieger makes for a deliciously dastardly Hasler. Though the role of Mabel is best served by an over-fifty character actress, Rodin does charming work in the part and duets “I’ll Never Be Jealous Again” with Schott in one of the richest voices in a vocally strong cast.

 Standout cameos are delivered by a hilarious Williams as the “weak-armed” factory worker whose grievance first introduces Babe to Sid; Hall, a terrific comic foil to Crisp’s Prez, especially when tipsy; and a dandy Hearl as a salesman with a bone to pick with whoever sent him out on the road with defective PJs.

Ensemble members Laurel Andersen, Heather Blades, Maggie Hall, Erik Jimenez, Chloe Lake, Alexander Mashikian, Caroline Montes, Steven Murray, Daron O’Donnell, Eric A. Peterson, Calista Ruiz, Lauren Turner, and Elizabeth Maria Walsh join their talented castmates in a series of highly entertaining production numbers, savvily choreographed by Nathan Wise to spotlight each performer’s best assets.

Song-and-dance sequences include the show-opening “Racing With The Clock,” followed by “I’m Not At All In Love,” “Think Of The Time I Save,” “Hernando’s Hideaway,” and “7½ Cents.” Best of all is the annual Sleep-Tite picnic’s “Once A Year Day,” which reveals the surprisingly acrobatic cast’s many hidden talents. As for the Act Two opener “Steam Heat,” originated on Broadway by Tony winner Carol Haney, it gets performed on the Downey stage by a pizzazzy Rensing, dance captain Curry, and Williams (though the trio are still working on the perfect precision and sync the iconically Fosse-esque number demands).

 Opening night audiences got treated to the best-sounding Downey CLO orchestra in this reviewer’s memory, with an unannounced Carmen Cortez Dominguez standing in for musical director/conductor Eddy Clement in the orchestra pit. The production’s unbilled “side stage” sets (Babe’s kitchen and Hasler’s office) are the best and most detailed I can recall in a Downey CLO show, making one wish for a bit more detail in main stage scenic design, as when the “Once A Year Day” picnic takes place on a nearly bare stage with only a blue-sky backdrop behind. Jacqui Jones’ vivid lighting design and Jay Lee’s sound design both merit thumbs up as do Elizabeth Bowen’s fabulous bevy of 1950s costumes, with Babe and Gladys in particular given one gorgeous outfit after another to wear, the sole exception being Babe’s yellow frock. (The color looks gorgeous on Volpe, but what’s with the six inches of slip showing under the sloppily hemmed skirt?) Mark Keller is technical director and Sally Casey Bell is stage manager.

Moode not only directs but serves as executive producer, with Ken & Dottie Reiner as honorary producers.

Amazingly, this is Downey’s first-ever The Pajama Game in the CLO’s fifty seven years of existence, begging the question, “What took them so long?” Still, in a textbook example of “Better Late Than Never,” the Best Musical Tony-winning Broadway classic proves one of the best vehicles ever for Downey CLO’s mix of Equity guest artists, young BFA students and grads, and community theater vets. The Pajama Game may not be the only game in town, but it’s certainly one of the most fun and entertaining.

Downey Theatre, 8435 E. Firestone Blvd., Downey.

–Steven Stanley
June 1, 2012

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