WORKING: a Musical

Adapted by Stephen Schwartz & Nina Faso
from the book by Studs Terkel
Songs by Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant,
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mary Rodgers,
Susan Birkenhead, Stephen Schwartz,
and James Taylor
Directed by Gordon Greenberg
Presented by Asolo Repertory
FSU Center for the Performing Arts, Mertz Theatre
5555 N. Tamiami Tr., Sarasota, May 16-June 8, 2008

Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker

Working has always been a favorite of composer Stephen Schwartz and regional and school theaters, though Broadway gave it short shrift. So it's being given a new chance--via some script updating, new songs and setting--for employment in New York. Along with Schwartz, his cast and crews have come from there to Sarasota, possibly in hopes the "reimagined" musical will enjoy the same success moving onto a Manhattan stage as may A Tale of Two Cities. The only similarity, however, is a floor-to-ceiling set with action on simultaneous levels as well as major scenes on the proscenium stage. Here, designer Beowulf Boritt's backstage "bones" of the show, in the shape of nine cubicles, immediately introduce the audience to actors dressing and making up, musicians tuning up, stage manager and sound technician readying cues: that is, working! (It reminded me of the old Living Theatre's Lost Eden cage or the cells in Omaha Magic Theatre's touring production of Megan Terry's Babes in the Bighouse. I do think the suggestion of workers imprisoned is faulty, just as Boritt and Aaron Rhyne's projections back of the frame may be colorful but overdone.)

The show remains a revue of monologues and musical numbers based on Studs Terkel's interviews with real workers about their jobs. Their words are, in fact, real documents. A major staging change is to have all the diverse workers portrayed by only six actors: Marie-France Arcilia, Darrin Baker, Colin Donnell, Danielle Lee Greaves, Nehai Joshi, and Liz McCartney. They also represent diversity in ethnic background, age, and sexual orientation. Newer jobs reflect greater use of computers, work contracted out of the U.S.A., and aides to retirees who're living longer and with more ills than in 1978. Broadway's latest star, composer-actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, has written "A Very Good Day" for the nursing home scene as well as the peppy song "Delivery" suggested by his early experience serving fast food and as a delivery boy. Schwartz supplies the beginning "All the Live Long Day" (for the whole cast, but highlighting construction worker, project worker) and penultimate "Fathers and Sons" which shows a typical laborer (Baker, an everyman like this in most scenes) having hopes his son will achieve more.

One wonders how typical is Rose (McCartney), who's less and less prepared for teaching different students with different needs and curricula, in "Nobody Tells Me How", sole contribution by Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead. James Taylor supplies two segments, as do Micki Grant and Craig Carnelia. The latter's strongest is "Just a Housewife", beginning with a homemaker's blues and containing Greaves' striking change into a hooker. Edgy humor sneaks in with Joshi's answering a phone, obviously from India, and comes on full force with Donnell telling how his ex-copyboy character, also by phone, told a caller his employers were more interested in making money than informing people. Arcilla is like a robot as she mimes making luggage. Those who appear proudest and happiest with their work are a mason, a fireman, caregivers. The waitress, cleaning lady, housewife may be the most ambivalent.

Mattie Ullrich's costumes seem authentic, without being confined to a period. Direction by Gordon Greenberg and Mark Harmen's Music Direction are complementary. Joshua Rhodes' choreography nicely meets the demands of the script. There isn't a song to hum on the way out of the theatre, but a lot of things to remember and perhaps a few to comment on. Another look at Terkel's book (also added to, but earlier) might extend the pleasure of audiences beyond this 90-minute non-stop production.

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