Review by Ethan Kanfer
In 1974, journalist Studs Terkel published the bestseller “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do." Free of sociological exegesis and editorial bias, the book delivered exactly what it promised: the plain, honest voices of Americans from all walks of life, telling stories of the workplace. The monologues proved surprisingly gripping, full of humor and sorrow, exhibiting both the diversity and the commonality of the American population. The book became the subject of a well-intentioned musical theatre piece which opened on Broadway in 1978, and closed shortly thereafter. It was a difficult fit for the main stem. Composed entirely of first person divulgences (known in musical theater jargon as “I am” songs), WORKING perhaps failed to satisfy audiences fed on plot-driven musicals.
Repurposed for a more intimate space and enhanced with some new material, the show has now found a venue that supports its unusual structure. Six well-chosen actors (Marie-France Arcilla, Joe Cassidy, Donna Lynne Champlin, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Nehal Joshia and Kenita Miller), show remarkable versatility as they transform into a 36 different characters. Choreographer Josh Rhodes director Gordon Greenberg move the action fluidly from one atmosphere to the next and keep the energy level high. With seven different songwriters, it’s natural that some numbers will be stronger than others. What the score lacks in consistency, though, it more than makes up for in the quality of its best entries. There are some terrific songs in WORKING, and the talents of the cast shine best when the material is well-crafted and emotionally pure. In “Nobody Tells Me How” a dedicated veteran schoolteacher struggles to reach her students as the education system slides towards oblivion. “It’s An Art” is a ferociously funny patter song in which a waitress turns her shift into a theatrical tour-de-force. In “A Good Day” the beginning and end of life are juxtaposed as a nanny sings to her young ward and a nurse cares for his geriatric client. The most stirring piece is the upbeat “Cleaning Women” in which a custodian dreams of a brighter future for her gifted young daughter.
Particularly moving in today’s troubled economic climate, this edition of WORKING doesn’t sanitize the disappointments and drudgery of workaday American life. But its message is ultimately a triumphant one. Without ever becoming saccharine or didactic, the show pays a sincere tribute to the hybrid of ambition and self-sacrifice that defines our national character.