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Off Broadway Reviews

Working: A Musical

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - June 26, 2019

Andréa Burns and Cast Members
Photo by Joan Marcus

Working, a 90-minute musical revue about the day-to-day lives of ordinary working Americans, comes thrillingly and most entertainingly alive in the production that opened last night as part of the Encores! Off-Center series at New York City Center.

Truly, it shouldn't be effective at all. It's a show that has mostly been floating around in various venues around the country on and off through the years since its less-than-stellar Broadway run of 24 performances in 1978. Its characters appear long enough for their 15 minutes of fame, then are whisked off the stage. There is no plot, or even much of a frame. And even the songs were written by several different composers. But it just goes to show you, ya never know.

Working, adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso, is based on a 1974 book by Studs Terkel. The book's full title tells you everything you need to know about its structure and about the structure of the musical: "Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do." When you first arrive at the theater, what you see is a row of music stands and a backdrop of Art Deco doors. What you expect, then, is a series of performers standing downstage and singing the show's numbers, one after the other.

But thanks to a splendid cast that includes the highly talented Helen Hunt, Andréa Burns, Javier Muñoz, Christopher Jackson, Mateo Ferro, Tracie Thoms, and David Garrison, along with smart and spritely directing by Anne Kauffman, what you get is not just a series of songs, but a series of self-contained musical plays. For example, while Helen Hunt isn't going to get any awards for her singing, her acting skills give tremendous depth to the school teacher in "Nobody Tells Me How," written by Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead, and the stay-at-home mom in "Just A Housewife" by Craig Carnelia. There is also an absolutely hilarious turn by Andréa Burns as a waitress in Stephen Schwartz's "It's An Art."

One of the smartest things that has happened to Working through the years is that it has been updated with new material that keeps things fresh. Susan Birkenhead added new lyrics to "Nobody Tells Me How" for this production, and Lin-Manuel Miranda joins the family with two songs, including "Delivery," based on his own experience as a delivery boy and exuberantly sung here by Mateo Ferro, using Bruce Coughlin and Alex Lacamoire's orchestrations that make it sound like a number that could be inserted into In The Heights. Very Miranda-ish and lots of fun.

Other musical contributors are Micki Grant, whose jazzy "Lovin' Al" is snazzily performed by Christopher Jackson, and James Taylor, whose "Brother Trucker" is sung by David Garrison and incorporates some very clever choreography by Avihai Haham. Also adding to the updates are script changes that bring in the stories of individuals who work for City Center itself, rooting this production of Working into the venue where it is being so joyously performed. All told, this is a great way to kick off the Encores! Off-Center summer season, which will also include the rarely seen surrealistically nutty Promenade, written by Maria Irene Fornes and Al Carmines, and Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Road Show.

Working: A Musical
Through June 29
New York City Center Mainstage, 131 West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
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