When the Wilton High School Spring Musical, Pajama Game, opens at the Clune Center on May 18, audiences will once again be entertained by some incredibly talented and dedicated teenagers. These students have spent much of the past three months toiling away to transform themselves and the stage into the world of the 1950s.

The Pajama Game, which first debuted on Broadway in 1954, is a classic musical comedy set at the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory in Iowa, and deals with labor troubles when worker demands for a 7.5 cent raise go unheeded. During this tumultuous time, love blossoms between Babe, the grievance committee head, and Sid, the new factory superintendent.

Producer Marty Kozlowski stands enthralled, watching the transformation process on the cast’s first day of getting into full costume and hair-and-makeup, as 21st century teens become characters from the 1950s before everyone’s eyes.

“For the first time to see themselves in the mirror really looking like the character they’re playing on stage is magical,” she says. “I can see them lighting up right now because they’re seeing, ‘this is what it was like!’ That’s when they really get it, when they see themselves, they step into the era, it always transforms their performance.”

It’s just as powerful for the student actors as well. Take senior Julia Foodman who plays “Mae,” one of the main characters. As parent volunteers help her put on a wig and draw cat-eye eye makeup, she says that not only did her friends not recognize her at first, she was shocked looking at herself.

“Seeing the hair, the makeup, I felt like a totally different person. I don’t look like me! I felt like when I put on the costume even my walk changed. I felt like, I’m Mae. I’m not Julia, I’m Mae now.”

Despite their age and relative life inexperience, the WHS performers really put their all into transforming and inhabiting their characters.

“It’s pretty exciting and it’s very common for us to sit through a show and completely forget that they are high school kids, because they really rise to the occasion,” says Kozlowski. “Last year when we did Beauty and the Beast, the boy who played the Beast was an incredibly talented kid. We would see him onstage, and he was so powerful. He would walk off with this amazing, power, like wow! And he’d go backstage, carrying on like, like less than a high school kid,” she laughs. “We see that all the time.”

She says the cast is having a lot of fun with the time period depicted in the play. All the adults involved in the production are working hard to teach the students as much as they can about what life was like in the 50s, even going so far as to have the cast meet with an actor who was in the original Broadway cast of The Pajama Game in the 1950.

Still it can be a slow process. “When we ask them to ad-lib, they always do it as themselves. It takes them a while to really catch on to what would have been appropriate for a person living in the 50s as opposed to a kid living today. Here’s a perfect example–when we did Les Miserables, we handed them these ‘authentic’ rifles (not real but wood carved ones) and put them up on the barricade for the first time and said to them, ‘You’re going to “fire” the rifles.’ They all handled them like automatic weapons, like, ‘ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch.’ We had to explain, ‘No that’s not what happens, you have to team up and one person takes a shot, and hand it to someone to load, they give it back.’ It never occurred to them.”

As a teacher, Kozlowski says the experience is so educational and powerful for students because of the way they’re immersed in the learning about the play–the subject, the time period, the music and theatrical part of it, and more. They can also draw some parallels with some of the same issues the kids might recognize in today’s world, as Kozlowski points out. “It centers around labor issues.”

Commitment and Time–Lots of It

As Meredith Walker, the show’s director explains, getting the students into the transformation process starts right from the beginning.

“We start rehearsals right after auditions, we jump right in. End of February, early March is when we start the rehearsal process. Especially with a musical, there are so many components–they have to learn dance, they have to learn the music, the scenes and staging, there’s so much.”

The commitment to being in the show means putting in a lot of time and hard work for the kids, who are already dealing with full academic schedules and very long days. Walker points out that in addition to the countless number of rehearsal hours, cast members are required to fulfill at least five hours of tech work, which includes set building and painting, all led by set designer, Christian Planton.

“I’m always very amazed and appreciative of how much time they give. So they may be here when they’re not even required to be at rehearsals, and they may come in early to work on the show–they really invest a lot of time.”

But, as they get closer to opening night, it becomes clearer that the hard work is paying off.

“It’s hard for anybody, let alone teenagers who are still trying to figure out who they are, let alone a character that they’re playing. But when it clicks, that’s always the most exciting part. It’s sort of the hardest thing to do as an actor, to give yourself permission to go to a place that may feel a little silly or over the top.”

In portraying Mae, Foodman says she’s up to the task.

“Mae is one of the factory girls, she’s best friends with ‘Babe,’ who’s the lead, and she kind of has a fling going on with ‘Prez’ who is the president of the union. She stands up for herself and is very outspoken, but she’s also really funny. There are a couple lines I’m really hoping I can get a big laugh. I’m definitely putting myself out there 100% and forcing myself to be vulnerable, to be the best character I can be. Especially because I can be like that, so I can relate to her.”

For Finn Maloney, the WHS junior who plays ‘Prez,’ says he had a complicated job figuring out how to portray his character, and learning more about the context of the past. Prez is a character who operates in a way that wouldn’t likely be accepted today.

“It’s kind of a tricky character to play because he’s sort of a skirt chaser, but a lot of the things he would have said back then in the 50s, would be weird to hear on the streets today, but it’s supposed to be completely normal so you have to mix in the fun of the 50s, that it’s totally innocent, but keep in mind that he’s going after girls.”

For him, getting into character means figuring out how to physically portray him. “It’s a lot of looking in the mirror and doing lines, because right before I walk on stage my body position changes completely. So I have to practice where are my shoulders going to be, how is my back aligned, what’s my face doing when I’m saying anything.”

Add in the challenge of being president of the WHS Little Theater Board, playing water polo and doing track and field–oh, and don’t forget academics–Finn, like all the kids putting in the hours on the play, deserves credit for keeping everything balanced and moving forward.

“It’s about managing your time, and realizing when you have time. If I’m backstage at rehearsal for a lot of time, which tonight I will be because we’re running through [the entire show], I have an A-PUSH (AP U.S. History) exam tomorrow, so I’ll be on the computer when I have time to do that, I’ll run lines, it’s making sure I’m never just sitting around. A-Push has actually been very helpful with this,” Finn laughs, recognizing that what he’s been learning about the era’s cultural details in the classroom is being put to use onstage.

But the kids get back ten-fold what they put in. Foodman has been part of several productions the school has staged, but for her there’s something more meaningful about this one.

“It’s really incredible, and it’s been such a whirlwind. Because it is my last show, I have been getting emotional. I don’t know if I’m going to continue doing theater in college so I’ve been really trying to get as much out of it as possible.”

Of course, for people sitting in the audience at the performances, there will be a lot they’ll get out of the experience also.

“It’s going to surprise audiences. There are a lot of standards–’Steam Heat,’ ‘Hey There’–that they might remember from childhood, that pop up in this musical,” says Walker, the director. “I love this show because it’s something different for this Wilton audience, it’s not a show that’s done very often. It’s a lot of fun, and these kids are onstage a ton–it’s more dancing than we’ve seen and it’s different fare than what we’ve done in the last five years or so.”

Performance dates and times for The Pajama Game are Thursday, May 18 at 7:30 p.m., Friday, May 19 at 8 p.m. and Saturday, May 20 at 4 p.m..

Tickets can be purchased online and are $15 for adults and $12 for students. For additional information, call 203.834.4844.

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