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Chicago by John Olson

Working
Broadway Playhouse

Also see John's review of The People's Four Seasons and Richard's review of The Master and Margarita

Stephen Schwartz's 1978 musical based on Stud Terkel's 1974 collection of interviews (subtitled People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do) has a subject that will be timely as long humans as walk the Earth. In the midst of our current "spirited political discussions" regarding labor unions and the rights of the working classes, a celebration of everyday people talking about their work lives couldn't be more relevant. Indeed, on opening night a monologue speech by an actor playing a community organizer drew cheers from the audience. Beyond its timeliness, though, Working remains a moving piece of musical theater, with one of the best scores (composed by Schwartz and six other songwriters) of the latter 20th century. The case for it as such is made by a stunning Chicago cast and a production team led by director Gordon Greenberg, all of whom, may I say, are very good at their jobs.

Working
Gabriel Ruiz, Emjoy Gavino, E. Faye Butler, Gene Weygandt,
Barbara Robertson and Michael Mahler

Songwriter Stephen Schwartz originally adapted Terkel's book for the Broadway stage with Nina Faso, turning Terkel's interviews into monologues, solos and group numbers that encompass common themes among Terkel's subjects. Since then, the two writers have revised and updated Working at least three times that I know of: for a PBS TV film in 1982, again in the 1990s for licensed stage productions, and for this version, which originated at San Diego's Old Globe last year. These more recent versions include some new monologues and songs to reflect workplace changes since the '70s: today's Working includes customer service reps, office workers dealing with technology, fast-food workers and a recently enlarged category: the unemployed.  The additions are reportedly all based on new interviews with real people, though conducted by other writers (Terkel died in 2008).

This Working has also been reconceived to make the show workable for a smaller cast and smaller venue. This production is at the 512-seat Broadway Playhouse (the remodeled Drury Lane Water Tower Place Theatre) and the cast is six actor/singers, as compared with the cast of 17 credited for the original Broadway production. The six actor/singers play nearly thirty different people—an average of four to five distinct characters each, as opposed to an average of two to three apiece in the Broadway version. The higher ratio inevitably heightens the artifice of the piece, and wisely, the creative team chose to embrace that fact. They celebrate the actors as workers in their own right and make their work processes visible to the audience. Before curtain, we see the six at dressing tables in the cubicles of a steel-grid frame and as the action begins, a stage manager visible to the audience gives sound and light cues for the audience to hear.  The cast members transform into different characters right on stage, changing costumes and wigs while assisted by on-stage dressers.

And what a cast it is! Chicago audiences have long known the impressive abilities of Gene Weygandt, Barbara Robertson and E. Faye Butler, and anyone who's seen musical theater here in the past three years is equally aware of the insanely talented performer/writer Michael Mahler. These four are joined and matched in ability by two newer faces, Emjoy Gavino and Gabriel Ruiz, who are absolute knockouts. Robertson stops the show as the waitress with Schwartz's "It's an Art," and warms the heart of the struggling-to-adapt older schoolteacher who sings "Nobody Tells Me How" (written by Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead). Ms. Butler transforms on stage from a homemaker to prostitute and turns Micki Grant's song "Cleanin' Women" into an 11:00 number of the best sort. Weygandt moves from steel worker to executive to retiree with ease, while Mahler wins laughs as a horny UPS driver as skillfully as he delivers the shocking monologue of an ex-cop turned firefighter. Ruiz cleverly nails a bored fast-food restaurant worker, singing "Delivery," one of two new and very good songs written for this version by Lin-Manuel Miranda.  Ruiz is also the sensitive offshore customer support rep Raj (unfairly identified as a Verizon employee, whose support personnel in my experience are all US-based) and the community organizer who drew cheers from the crowd.  Ms. Gavino's first monologues are as a ditzy flight attendant and a receptionist, but she's heartbreaking as the weary factory worker who does the lead vocals on Taylor's "Millwork."  Here, as in the Broadway original, it's a stunningly choreographed number depicting the monotony of a luggage manufacturing line (Josh Rhodes provides the effective choreography ). Ruiz and Gavino—exceptional singers both—have a duet on the other new song by Miranda, "A Very Good Day," in which they play compassionate caregivers. 

Without taking anything away from the skills of these six performers, their transformations owe much to the costume designs of Mattie Ullrich and the wigs of Kaity Licina (shamefully credited only in the "Additional Staff" section way in the back of the Playbill).

The chance to display this sort of range must be a performer's dream, and I would guess this cast is equally thrilled to have such good songs to perform. Schwartz has said he realized the need to invite a group of songwriters who could write naturally in the various voices of the people taken from Terkel's original interviews, so the score has an eclectic but improbably cohesive feel, with expectations set in the first line ("I Hear America Singing") of Schwartz' opening-number anthem, "All the Livelong Day." The score includes Taylor's bouncy country-western "Brother Trucker" and hauntingly folky "Millwork," as well as Micki Grant's R&B number "Cleanin' Women" and bluesy but show tune worthy "If I Could Have Been." The latter, which on Broadway was the first act finale, is a lament to lost dreams and profound disappointment, and is one of the best show tunes most people have never heard.  More clearly in the theater music camp are the numbers by Craig Carnelia and Schwartz, with Carnelia's numbers among the most heartfelt: the underappreciated mom who's "Just a Housewife" and the lonely retiree "Joe."  Carnelia also wrote the rousing finale, "Something to Point To," reaffirming the universal need for pride in one's work. To keep the piece at a trim intermissionless 90 minutes, several songs from earlier versions have been cut ("Lovin' Al," Neat to Be a Newsboy," "Un Mejor Dia Vendra," and "I'm Just Movin'").

I remember the Broadway production at the 46th Street Theater as a large one. It's of necessity smaller here, but still visually impressive, with Beowulf Borritt's grid of steel girders supplemented by projections designed by Aaron Rhyne. The lighting design by Jeff Croiter and Jesse Klug includes dramatic hues like the fiery red for the building fire observed by the retiree and a hellish burnt orange for the luggage factory.

That said, the smaller-scale production does lose a certain scope and grandeur from the Broadway production, where the lesser need to double-up on parts made it easier to believe we were listening to 30 real people rather than actors. And, with so much stage time devoted to monologues and solos, there was a sense of awe and acknowledgement of America's diversity when the entire cast came together onstage. I missed the sound of a full orchestra as well. While the four-piece band—a keyboard plus guitar, bass and drums—is adequate enough for the solo numbers, the big anthems deserve a richer sound. Still, one has to recognize the financial constraints of theatrical production and acknowledge how unlikely it would be for a lesser-known musical like Working to do the sort of business that could pay for a big staging. Larger productions are more feasible for community and university productions that don't need to pay salaries and want to involve a lot of people, and let's hope this revival inspires those groups to do this piece. For now, Working's producers Jed Bernstein, Dianne Fraser and Sheila Simon Geltzer have created something quite unusual—a mid-size commercial production.  If it's successful, as the show deserves to be, it may open up all sorts of new opportunities for theater professionals to do their work, and that would indeed be something to point to.

Working is in an open-ended run at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, Chicago. For tickets, visit Broadway in Chicago boxes offices, the Broadway in Chicago Ticket Line at 800-775-2000, all Ticketmaster retail locations, or www.BroadwayinChicago.com.


Photo: Amy Boyle

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-- John Olson



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