Seven and half cents doesn’t seem like much. You can’t even buy a gumball with seven and a half cents.
But it means a lot in the Concord Community Players’ rendition of The Pajama Game at the Concord Auditorium this weekend. The musical, based on the novel 7½ Cents by Richard Bissell, follows labor troubles that arise in a pajama factory when workers demand a 7½-cent raise.
Even 60 years after the original production was written, there’s an underlying theme that’s relevant. From the comments on unions, management and unfair practices, to bringing out the voices of the common worker, the show still hits home, said Barbara Lawler, who plays Babe in the show.
The original production was directed by Bob Fosse, marking the beginning of his career; the dance numbers in this production are very “Fosse,” said Bobby Fornacier, director of this rendition.
“‘Steam Heat’ represents some of his signature choreography. He was one of the triple threats in theater [having won an Oscar, Tony and Emmy]. … This is just one of those shows that has been the staple in a lot of community theater groups and high school productions,” Fornacier said.
While Fornacier didn’t feel it was necessary to change the money value from seven and a half cents to a more modern raise request, he did incorporate a few stylistic changes that will update the production and make it run more smoothly. He isn’t the first director to revive The Pajama Game, and if history is any indication, he won’t be the last.
The original production of The Pajama Game opened in 1954 and ran for 1,063 performances, winning a Tony for Best Musical. It was revived twice; once in 1973, and then again in 2006, at which time it was awarded a Tony for Best Revival of Musical.
Fornacier made a conscious choice to keep the facts the same. But this production will be fresh.
“This isn’t the ’50s. We wanted to make it more current. We have to put a certain level of freshness, add some whimsy and vibrancy, and likewise, still keep it steamy,” Fonacier said.
For instance, set changes on Broadway were was done slowly, and the curtain closed between each scene. The Concord Players are trying to make the production more free-flowing. “With this one, you’ll see the set changes happen on stage,” Fornacier said.
The sets pass as 1950s dining room and office space, but they’re more fun. The drawers in the space contain pops of color and sprinkles of brightness that liven the mood, and while the small size of the stage initially posed a challenge, Fornacier kept with the original design, with 14 sets and props pulled in from the Players’ inventory.
“A lot of people who put this play on, in adult theater or in high school, will cut back on the scenery or cut back on the props. Bobby went all out,” said Anthony Apaganelli, co-producer of the show. “When they perform a scene from the company picnic, he added even more pieces to make it more lifelike.”
Why does The Pajama Game keep coming back? Fonacier says it’s because within its storyline are key elements for a feel-good show.
For one, he said, everybody loves a love story; in this show, there are three. First there’s the Juliet and Romeo kind of love story between the tough-but-vulnerable Catherine “Babe” Williams (leader of the Union Grievance Committee) and the new factory superintendent Sid Sorokin. Then there are Hines and Gladys, an engaged couple with their own troubles: Hines is easily jealous, while Gladys is a flirt. Prez and Mae round out the trio of love stories, in which Prez is the chaser and Mae plays hard to get.
The Pajama Game is also a popular revival because of its classic song-and-dance numbers like “Steam Heat” and “Hernando’s Hideaway.” Fornacier is performing a double whammy in the production, working as both director and choreographer, and he has high expectations for the dancing.
“Some directors might tone down the dancing for community theater actors, but I usually have them try the original Broadway number,” he said. Stage manager Charles Mitchell joked that when he worked as an actor under Fornacier’s direction, he’d often leave practice extremely sore.
But actors are up for the challenge. The cast is thick with seasoned performers, and these members, along with volunteer crew, put in hours outside of rehearsal time building the 14 intricate sets, creating costumes and marketing the show.
For Matthew Motrie, playing Sid Sorokin is like stepping back in time; he played the same role when he was in eighth grade. Since then, he’s had more than 30 years of studying and training, including his time at the Boston Conservatory of Music. “It’s sort of nostalgic, getting back into it, and proving to myself that I’ve improved,” he said in between rehearsal scenes.
But that’s not to say that you won’t see some fresh faces come Friday night; Zachary Smith is playing Charlie, someone who he describes as a “spineless character,” flip-flopping his sides in the union/management strife. There’s a chronic shortage of men who are involved in community theater, he said, and while he began with the intention to work backstage, he was persuaded to step out front.
If the cast and crew have done their job, audiences will leave the production feeling good. “It’s lighthearted and fun. With all of the craziness people are going through in their lives, they deserve to treat themselves to some joy,” Lawler said.