Slumber Party: Northwestern alumni Frankie DiCiaccio, Kelley Abell reunite for ‘The Pajama Game’


Frankie DiCiaccio (Communication ‘12) plays a swing in the new musical "The Pajama Game."

James Bien, Reporter

Among the plays featured in The Music Theatre Company’s current season is its adaptation of the award-winning musical, “The Pajama Game.” In it, Frankie DiCiaccio (Communication ‘12) and Kelley Abell (Communication ‘12) play a swing (a male understudy to an ensemble of male characters) and the character of Poopsie, respectively.

These are among the first roles the Northwestern alumni have acted in since graduating last year. Attached to the tremendous excitement of acting with a professional company is naturally some nervousness and fear.

“It’s kind of scary,” DiCiaccio said. “I’ve never done it before.”

Abell, who has 12 years of dance experience, also noted the challenging choreography she has to learn for her character.

“(The choreographer) really pushes our limits as actors and dancers, which is incredible,” Abell said.

The choreographer for the show, Jessica Redish (Communication ‘02) is also a friend of NU. Redish is the founding artistic director of The Music Theatre Company in Chicago.

“I wanted to create a home for new musicals to flourish,” Redish said. “Now that the company has grown from then, a summer festival, to now, a year-round theater, we started doing bigger titles as well, but looking at them in a new way.”

This production, which is directed by Jess McLeod, an NU graduate student studying directing, takes a specific approach to this classic play.

“It’s usually a really big show, but our theater is really intimate, a smaller space,” DiCiaccio said. “You get to know the characters better and more intimately. Jess McLeod, the director, has done a really terrific job being specific with all of the characters and who these people really are, so there is something really real about it.”

Abell expressed a similar sentiment about her role as Poopsie, one of four women working in the factory.

“The women who work in the factory are so important to the telling of the story,” Abell said. “Jess (McLeod) makes us each such unique and strong women.”

As the choreographer, Redish tried to explore the play through the eyes of the factory workers in the harsh conditions of their working environment.

“We see this production sometimes, and we think it’s a very enjoyable place to work, so I want to make it clear through the choreography that it’s some place that’s very difficult to work at,” Redish said.

The musical, which is set in the 1950s, centers on a group of pajama factory workers who demand a 7.5-cent raise. Although the setting is different from what a 20-year-old might face today, Abell said as a recent graduate, she can relate to her character’s struggles.

“It feels very close to home to be working on close to a minimum wage, where literally every cent does count,” Abell said. “Most of all, it’s feeling like you deserve to be compensated for all the work you have to do.”

Despite that, Abell still noted some important differences between her character and herself.

“Poopsie really understands men, and that’s how she wields her power,” Abell said. “I’m not sure Kelley’s like that.”

Abell said she feels incredibly fortunate to be part of The Music Theatre Company.

“There’s such a great sense of play in the room, and a commitment to exploration that I have really, really loved. I felt so free to explore,” Abell said. “It’s really important to me because I keep telling friends of my graduating class that we have so much time to make art that we promised ourselves we’d make in Willard at 3 a.m. drinking our Starbucks double shots.”

Abell said part of the reason why it was so enjoyable to work with The Music Theatre Company was the heavy presence of NU alumni: Matt Deitchman, the music director, and Carly Robinson, a female swing, are also graduates.

“It’s been really fun working with people who speak the same language,” Abell said. “They have the same priorities of creating meaningful art.”
DiCiaccio, who described the company as warm and inviting, also said he appreciates having friends from his graduating class.

Redish recalled only one other time when a musical was comprised of so many NU graduates. In 2011, The Music Theatre Company featured the musical “Merrily We Roll Along,” in which six NU graduates participated.

“I really like working with Northwestern graduates,” Redish said. “There’s a common dialogue that we share, and I appreciate that.”
Redish said since graduating in 2002, she has been back to see a few shows, making her familiar with some of the students’ work on campus and throughout the city. One of the students she recognized was Abell.

“I adore working with Kelley,” Redish said. “I’ve seen her perform at other theaters around town, and I admire her work. She’s very smart, and her approach is very intelligent. Frankie’s also delightful.”

In the end, both Abell and DiCiaccio said they value the experience NU has given them in preparing them for roles like theirs in “The Pajama Game.”

“I’m so blessed to continue working with people I met at Northwestern,” Abell said. “In my mind, (NU) is the only place to study theater, but that’s just me.”