Bold by Design

With a larger-than-life set, Walt Spangler puts a new twist on an old `Game.'

October 16, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The Pajama Game may be a classic musical comedy, but when audiences enter Center Stage's Head Theater for this season-opening production, they'll see anything but a classic set.

Instead, they will find themselves facing a gargantuan sewing machine. Well, not the whole machine - just a few important features, specifically a 25-foot aluminum needle, pressure foot and an enormous bolt of striped fabric, crafted out of laminated wood.

"It is as if that bolt is being unfurled and sent through the sewing machine to become pajamas ... as if the sewing machine has been made so huge that that's all of it that can be in this building," says Walt Spangler, the show's New York-based set designer.

Spangler's credits include Center Stage's January production of four short Thornton Wilder plays, complete with beach-ball-like planets, and the 2000 production of Timon of Athens at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre, which greeted audiences with an enlarged magazine cover picturing the title character.

But the designer himself admits that The Pajama Game is one of his more wild and crazy sets. This is especially surprising, he says, "considering what we started with." He's referring to the old-fashioned scenery that was his first take on this old-fashioned musical.

The Pajama Game is part of musical theater's Golden Age, but it's not particularly well-known. Based on a novel called 7 1/2 Cents, by Richard Bissell, the musical - adapted by Bissell and legendary director George Abbott - is about labor unrest at a Midwestern pajama factory. The protagonists are two seemingly mismatched lovers - Babe Williams, head of the union's grievance committee, and Sid Sorokin, the factory's superintendent.

Although the 1954 musical hasn't lingered in the public's consciousness as strongly as many of its contemporaries, its score contains such standards as "Hey, There," "Hernando's Hideaway" and "Steam Heat." The show also launched a number of careers, including those of producer-turned-director Harold Prince, choreographer Bob Fosse, songwriters Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (who went on to write Damn Yankees) and perhaps most famously, Shirley MacLaine, who became a star overnight when she stepped in to replace an injured Carol Haney.

` '50s with a vengeance'

Last spring when Spangler began thinking about a Pajama Game set, he happened to be working with Prince on a new musical called 3hree. The acclaimed director was "very enthusiastic about the idea of [Pajama Game] being redone," Spangler says.

"It was funny to hear him describe what [the production] was like in the '50s. He said that they had a lot of sewing machines, which they had gotten donated, and they had a lot of bolts of fabric," the designer recalls. "He told me to just put a bunch of sewing machines on the stage."

That's basically where Spangler started. In May, at his first meeting with director Irene Lewis, he suggested a "very literal" design that included a "very literal office and very literal kitchen and very literal factory floor with five sewing machines."

It wasn't what Lewis had in mind. "She really felt that she wanted to do something that exploded the piece more," Spangler says. "She used the term: ` '50s with a vengeance.' "

"When I saw the set it sort of all gelled for me, and I said, `I think we need a completely new take on the material,' " says Lewis, who is also the theater's artistic director. In passing, she mentioned to Spangler that the set might include "one big sewing machine, instead of a lot of little sewing machines."

Back in New York, Spangler gathered further inspiration from period advertisements in the picture collection of the New York Public Library. "There was this one in particular that struck me - a beautiful 1950s sewing machine and on [top of it was] a sofa and a chair and a woman hanging a big piece of fabric, and of course they were small in relation to the sewing machine. It seemed a logical leap."

Instead of putting the actors on top of the machine, however, he saw them performing on an expanse of fabric that flowed from a colossal bolt, with the six-member orchestra on top of the bolt.

Nor did his imagination stop there. "Rather than being made out of fabric, the entire space is sort of out of Eames furniture, which is something that came to the fore in the '50s in terms of bent wood, plywood furniture," he says. The playing surface on the extended thrust stage "is laminated and the top veneer is birch plywood in two colors. The notion is an iconographic image of striped pajamas. The idea would be that you have a rather neutral actual surface and then Mimi Sherin, the lighting designer, would colorize the set."

Not sure how Lewis would react to such an unconventional interpretation, Spangler wrote to her before their second meeting. "He said, `Now listen, Irene, I want you to be prepared. I've really done something rather radical,' and I said, `Great.' He said, `I hope you feel that way after you see it,' " the director recalls.

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