When was the last time you saw a musical about regular working stiffs? In Keegan Theatre’s breezy new production of Working, an assortment of blue and white-collar Americans offer a timely, uplifting meditation on the daily grind and all the rewards and regrets that accompany any job.
Working is primarily adapted from Studs Terkel’s highly acclaimed nonfiction sociological work Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. Since the original 1978 Broadway premiere, the musical has undergone many changes, including a 2009 update by Stephen Schwartz, featuring new songs by Lin Manuel Miranda, and a 2011 revision by Gordon Greenberg. The current version sheds some outmoded 1970s roles for modern additions including ambitious delivery boy Freddy Rodriguez, played by precocious talent Manuel Ayala Sapelli, and a caricature of a Wall Street 1%’er, played to the hilt by RaMond Thomas.
The production unfolds like a theatrical stream of consciousness, following a random assortment of characters through their daily routines without much to link them together beyond a loose through line of shared struggle. As one might expect with a production about working 9 to 5, many of the characters express familiar frustrations relating to workplace dynamics, deferred dreams, family drama, and classism. It’s not all negative, however, as just as many songs explore uplifting themes like the simple joy of a big tip and the satisfaction of a hard day’s labor.
The score represents a collective effort by the aforementioned Schwartz and Miranda, as well as Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Mary Rodgers, and Susan Birkenhead. Even the great James Taylor contributed several numbers. The committee of songwriters incorporated spoken word, densely packed verses, alternating time signatures, and novel rhyming schemes into a very mixed musical bag. The small orchestra does a yeomanlike job navigating the shifting styles. At times they drown out the actors in the middle of their clever lyrics, but the blame could also be chalked up to mic troubles or bad acoustics.
Between the mash-up nature of the storyline, the score’s jumbled musical sensibilities, and the aforementioned acoustic issues, the production seems a bit rudderless at first. That several actors experience early vocal jitters only further hamstrings the early action. However, the production finds solid footing with a string of quality performances after the first twenty minutes. In “Just a Housewife”, Tina Grandchilar utilizes her powerful voice to lead an impassioned defense of stay at home motherhood, along with the help of an assortment of like minded moms. Her animated eyes evince a deep pride in her lifestyle choice, mixed with a slight desire for acceptance.
Jennifer Richter provides the highlight of the first half with “Millwork”, a haunting account of the extreme dangers and tedium of the assembly line. Richter plays Grace, a single mother supporting her three children with a punishing factory job. Richter describes in detail the demanding, life threatening actions she must perform every 40 seconds inside her metal tank, in order to put food on the table. She punctuates her devastating story with the line: “I have been a fool to let the manufacturer use my body as a tool.”
Later, Mick Tinder provides a serene, resigned counterpoint to his struggling contemporaries as retiree Joe Zutty. In “Joe”, Tinder puts on a masterful display of understated emotion with his portrait of a witty elder who has already made peace with the struggles that plague the other characters.
Director Shirley Serotsky’s intelligent double casting results in an equal-opportunity vision of the American tapestry, as each actor explores disparate sectors of the economic and cultural spectrum. A struggling teacher becomes a high powered socialite. A ruthless financier becomes a sensitive, underpaid caretaker. A scrappy delivery boy becomes a coddled trust fund baby. The many combinations prevent the audience from ascribing familiar stereotypes to each actor, emphasizing individual stories over cultural expectations.
As Working mostly showcases one or two characters onstage at a time, choreographer Kurt Boehm has limited room to exert his creative vision. He provides some fun moments with the roadhouse sleaze of “Brother Trucker” and the jubilant, Hairspray-esque “Cleanin’ Women.” He saves most of his razzle dazzle for “It’s an Art”, wherein waitress Delores Dante, played by the brassy Sherry Berg, hams it up all over the stage like a drink-slinging Velma Kelly.
The charm of the musical lies in its ability to make the most mundane situations worthy of cheering. The protagonists are firemen, maids, security guards, cubicle dwellers, and construction workers. The set, littered with scaffolding, half finished stairs, and road paint conveys an anonymous work in progress. Even the sometimes spotty vocals match the production’s goal of championing real yet imperfect people as they are. This message resonates loudly in an economic climate where simply having a job is considered a blessing and a mark of pride.
In these trying times, pop culture has reached a high water mark for fantasy and nostalgia, a collective longing for a time more stylish, more exciting, and more hopeful. Amidst a wave of escapism, Working’s most audacious twist is the absence of “happily ever after”. No character rises above their economic situation or exorcises their demons, at least not onstage. Working offers the audience no escape from reality, but rather the bracing yet self-affirming chance to look into a mirror and celebrate what we see inside.
Keegan Theatre’s Working runs thru May 13, 2012 at Church Street Theater, 1742 Church St, Washington, DC.
From the Book by Studs Terkel
Adapted by Stephen Schwartz, Nina Faso, and Gordon Greenberg
Songs by Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Lin Manuel Miranda, Stephen Schwartz, James Taylor, Mary Rodgers, and Susan Birkenhead
Directed by Shirley Serotsky
Musical Direction and Sound Design by Jake Null
Choreography by Kurt Boehm
Produced by The Keegan Theatre
Runtime: 1 hour, 30 minutes (no intermission)