Racially diverse casting skyrockets a sixty-five-year-old Broadway classic into the 21st century without sacrificing an iota of its Golden Era charm in UCI Claire Trevor School Of The Arts’ big-stage, big-talent revival of 1954’s The Pajama Game.

Add to that a factory full of 1950s working women with matters other than marriage on their minds and a decidedly pro-labor stance in today’s increasingly anti-union America and you’ve got a musical that scarcely seems retirement age at all.

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 blends comedy, romance, and one Richard Adler-Jerry Ross hit after another, including ‘50s standards “Hey There,” “Steam Heat,” and “Hernando’s Hideaway” (and a couple of uncredited Frank Loesser songs) for two-and-a-half hours of infectious fun.

Requisite romantic sparks are provided by newly arrived factory superintendent Sid Sorokin (Max DeLoach) and grievance committee head Babe Williams (Eriel Milan Brown), the tempestuous twosome 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 showcase for an all-student cast.

 While Sid and Babe 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 wacky factory timekeeper Vernon “Hinesy” Hines (Isaiah Tadros), who despite promises to secretary Mabel (Olivia Pech) that he will “never be jealous again” keeps seeing the green-eyed monster whenever his curvaceous girlfriend Gladys (Veronica Renner) even looks at another man, most especially roving-eyed union head Prez (Aaron James Miller).

Other featured characters include factory owner Myron “Old Man” Hasler (David Bradbury), Babe’s kindly stamp-collecting Pop (Edgar Khatchatrian), and traveling salesman Max (McKay Mangum), along with feisty factory worker Mae (Zoe Godfrey-Grinage) and her fellow seamstresses, none of whom believe Babe’s protestations that she is “not at all in love.”

Director Don Hill knows his Broadway classics like the back of his hand, and by casting more performers of color in a single production than I’ve seen in any of the seven other student-cast shows I’ve reviewed over the past school year, makes a commitment to diversity that deserves its own tip of the hat.

Graduating seniors DeLoach and Brown add up to a particularly dynamic opposites-attract duo, DeLoach proving himself the quintessential Golden Era Musical leading man with pipes to match opposite Brown’s bubbly ball of fire Babe, who can sell a song with the best of them, and never more so than when duetting “Small Talk” and “There Once Was A Man” with her handsome superintendent.

Stealing scenes right and left is Tadros’s absolutely fabulous Hines, taking an already delicious role and delivering a performance that would do Jerry Lewis or Jim Carrey proud, partnered to jealousy-provoking effect with Renner’s effervescent Gladys, who proves the evening’s dance standout (along with the equally sensational Patrick Maravilla’s Charlie and Shahil Patel’s Bill) in the Fosse-sque show-stopper “Steam Heat.”

 Also along for the ride are talented featured players Miller (a folksy Prez), Pech (a spunky Mabel), Bradbury (a dastardly Hasler), Khatchatrian (a lovable Pop), Godfrey-Grinage (a sassy Mae), Mangum (a lively Max), and Spencer Vicente Peterson as “weak-armed” factory worker Larry.

Choreographer Allison Eversoll pays tribute to Bob Fosse (The Pajama Game was his first Broadway choreographic credit) while making “Racing With The Clock,” “I’m Not At All In Love,” “Once A Year Day,” and “Hernando’s Hideaway” very much her own, and merits special snaps for discovering the tap potential in “7½ Cents,” athletic moves executed by Melíza Gutierrez (Rita), Anya Johnston (Doris), Francesca Menegon (Coleen), Zain Patel (Joe, Waiter), Justine Rafael (Sandra), Tori Stamm (Virginia), Zoie Tannous (Brenda), Carly Tilson-Lumetta (Poopsie), and the rest of The Pajama Game’s accomplished song-and-dance ensemble.

Musical director Lex Leigh not only elicits top-notch vocals but conducts The Pajama Game’s all-pro pit orchestra.

UCI MFA design majors join forces to give The Pajama Game a professional look to rival any L.A. regional production, from Brandon PT Davis’s stylish set to Sarah Fulford’s colorful period costumes to Natori Cummings-Hines’s vibrant lighting, and Ningru Guo’s sound design provides a mostly glitch-free vocal-instrumental mix.

Bradley Zipser is production stage manager. Amy Shine is dramaturg. Maravilla is dance captain. Alyssa Corella and Ernest Figueroa are swings. Marcy Froehlich links scenes to amusing effect as The Voice Of Sleep Tite Management.

Only a few years ago, The Pajama Game might have come across rather a bit too old-hat for a university production. Not so in 2019, where a diversity-promoting UC Irvine cast and some newly hot-button issues give it an unexpectedly contemporary look and feel.

With performers clearly having the time of their end-of-the-school-year lives, audiences can expect to have every bit as much fun watching the Sleep Tite shenanigans on the Claire Trevor Theatre stage.

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UCI Claire Trevor Theatre, UC Irvine Campus, Irvine.

–Steven Stanley
June 6, 2019
Photos: Paul R. Kennedy

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