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The Pajama Channel: Woodbury High School stages classic musical as retro TV broadcast

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Woodbury

For its fall musical, the Royal Theatre at Woodbury High School goes back to the 1950s, where labor unrest is brewing at a company in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

If that sounds grim, it's anything but. It's "The Pajama Game," a 1954 chestnut about a labor-management romance during a pending strike at the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory.

Forget the plot. In fact, you probably will moments after the curtain goes down. But you will remember the songs by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross. "The Pajama Game" produced at least three bonafide classic tunes: "Hey There (You with the Stars in Your Eyes)," "Hernando's Hideaway," and "Steam Heat." The razzle-dazzle dance numbers were originally choreographed by a young up-and-comer from Chicago named Bob Fosse.

Royal Theatre choreographer Heather Paulsen said she paid tribute to Fosse's signature style in creating the moves for "Steam Heat."

The story centers on a pending strike at Sleep-Tite. The overworked seamstresses want a 7 1/2 cent per hour raise. Meanwhile, sparks fly between worker and activist Babe Williams (Nadia Franzen) and new factory superintendent Sid Sorokin (William Vouk).

"It's cheesy," said Sam Crosby-Schmidt, 16, who plays efficiency expert Vernon Hines. "The kind of techniques of writing musicals hadn't been developed yet. The challenge is to make it as though the characters are coming from a real place."

Period authenticity is also crucial, said director Marcie Berglund of Cottage Grove.

"I have to talk to them about their mannerisms," she said. "There were no high-fives in those days."

There were also no sexual harassment workplace laws in those days, and some of the scenes reflect that.

But Berglund won't try to update the show or to impose modern social relevance. Instead, she's doubling down. She's staging "The Pajama Game" as a mock TV broadcast from the early '60s, complete with an announcer (Henry Kueppers) and commercials. The auditorium at Woodbury High School will stand in as a soundstage at WRBC-TV.

"We wanted to give it a sort of 'Mad Men' style," she said. "We will have commercials of the day."

Those commercials are the kind with which the sexist ad executives on "Mad Men" probably would have come up.

In one commercial, Kelsey Strand plays a housewife who is distressed that her husband (John Mutyaba) doesn't like her coffee.

The spots will "air" during the scene changes. The audience will see the real stage crew playing the television stagehands.

"When we have a scene change I don't really want to leave that time period," Berglund said. "I want to keep them here."

If you go

"The Pajama Game" will be presented by the Royal Theatre at Woodbury High School, at 7 p.m. Nov. 11-12 and Nov. 17-19, and at 2 p.m. Nov. 13. The opening night reception will benefit the Pajama Program charity.

Advance tickets are $9 for adults and $7 for students and seniors. Add $1 if purchased at the door.

The high school is located at 2665 Woodlane Drive.

For details, visit WHSRoyalTheatre.com.

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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