Chicago Theatre Review
Sleepwear Fit for the ’50’s
For those of us who grew up during the Eisenhower years, songs from Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’ score provide a blast from our past. Haunting ballads like “Hey There” and “A New Town is a Blue Town,” and catchy novelty tunes such as “Steam Heat” and “Hernando’s Hideaway” became often-played standards on the radio. George Abbott’s dramatic collaboration with author Richard Bissell of his novel, 7 1/2 Cents, turned into 1955’s Tony Award-winner for Best Musical. The show has been revived twice on Broadway (the latest 2006 version starred Harry Connick, Jr. and Kellie O’Hara) and has become a staple with regional, community and educational theatres. The reasons are many, as demonstrated in Jess McLeod’s grittier, economy-sized version now playing in Highland Park.
First, although set in the innocent, by-gone world of “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It to Beaver,” this love story between management and worker, with a nod to the power of organized unions, is still relevant today. Set in a small-town Iowa pajama factory, Sid, the good-looking, new plant supervisor, while trying to demonstrate his leadership potential, falls in love with Babe, the attractive, strong-minded Grievance Committee boss. When Mr. Hassler, the company’s CEO, refuses to grant his hard-working employees a 7 1/2 cent-an-hour raise that would keep them competitive with other factories, the union decides to strike. The resulting disagreement between management and workers naturally creates a riff between Sid and Babe.
Other significant characters who populate the Sleep Tite Pajama Factory include Vernon Hines, the company’s tightly-wound efficiency expert; Gladys, Hines’ girlfriend and Mr. Hassler’s charming, devoted personal secretary; Mabel, Hassler’s mother hen senior secretary; Prez, the unhappily married union head with a wandering eye for the ladies; and several other assorted stitchers, repair workers and salesmen. Ms. McLoed has wisely kept her cast-size modest, employing only about a dozen actors to fill multiple roles while still filling the Music Theatre Company’s stage with talent.
Sarah Bockel, whose Chicago credits are numerous, is the complete package as Babe. Ms. Bockel brings the necessary toughness, while still providing moments of vulnerability and genuine caring (seen primarily in scenes with her co-workers and her father). But this actress can work a song with power, clarity and real passion. David Sajewich brings a likable, earnest quality to his portrayal of Sid but, while competent, some of his high notes seem a bit tentative. The evening’s most impressive performances come from Jason Richards as Hines, the company’s fastidious timekeeper with a jealous streak, and Dana Tretta, as prim and proper Gladys, who finally lets her hair down at Hernando’s Hideaway. Nancy Kolton makes the most of Mabel, especially in her duet with Richards, “I’ll Never Be Jealous Again.”
Jessica Redish’s choreography, like the scenery, is minimal but effective in such numbers as the joyous “Once-a-Year Day” company picnic and her stylized assembly line precision during “Racing with the Clock.” Matt Deitchman’s talented four-member band creates a rollicking, full-sounding accompaniment, particularly during the rousing, banjo-strumming hoedown duet, “There Once Was a Man.”
For a stroll down a memory lane of musical hits, a charming love story demonstrating how opposites attract and a reminder of the importance of American unions to the economy, the Music Theatre Company’s entertaining Spring offering is no sleeper.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented through May 19 by The Music Theatre Company, 1850 Green Bay Rd., Highland Park, IL.
Tickets are available by calling 847-579-4900 or going to firstname.lastname@example.org
Additional information about this and other productions can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.