As in Life, “Working” is a Mixed Bag

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Photo by Mark S. Howard for Lyric Stage Co of Boston; The Cast.

Presented by The Lyric Stage Company of Boston
Based on the book, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, by Studs Terkel.
Adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso.
Additional contributions by Gordon Greenberg. Songs by Craig Carnella, Micki Grant, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead, Stephen Schwartz, James Taylor.
Directed & Choreographed by Ilyse Robbins
Music Direction by Jonathan Goldberg

January 3 to February 1, 2014
140 Clarendon St.
Boston, MA
The Lyric on Facebook

Running time: Approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.

Review by Kitty Drexel

Boston) Studs Terkel’s book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do is a collection of essays/interviews with Americans in the workforce. It spans a variety of jobs and careers while exploring the motivations behind the work the subjects do. The employed and unemployed look for recognition, justification and greater purpose looking for recognition in the work that we do. The musical, Working adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso, uses samples from Terkel’s book to bring the dialogue to the stage.

The musical was originally written in 1978. It has undergone several revisions; the most recent was in 2011. Depending on the edition used, the script can have 40 characters and use up to 17 actors. The Lyric production has 6 actors filling 26 roles. There are 14 musical numbers in this production. With this much happening on stage, it would be easy to get confused as an audience member. The fact that the characterizations are so cleanly defined is a testament to the talents of the cast and to director Ilyse Robbins. The individual acting talents of the cast is the initial the draw to the show. Hearing this obscure work is a close second. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there.

Working is a curious musical. It’s composed of short vignettes in which strangers discuss their employment status. It is performed in a musical review format. The characters are happy, sad, good, bad, nice, cruel, etc.: they are people just like us. It could be an entertaining show if the focus remained on the storytelling. Instead, the writers got ahead of themselves and tried to make a bigger production than the script warrants. It’s And the World Goes ‘Round in Ragtime’s clothes.

Despite Robbins’ effort to pull Working into a cohesive piece, the majority of the choreography is lackluster (the exception being “Millwork” by James Taylor. The choreography is deceptively complex and the Tiffany Chen’s portrayal of a single-parent, factory worker is heart-breaking). The group numbers don’t work in the context of the production and their transitions are shaky. The solo numbers with ensemble back-up are more successful. For example, “Brother Trucker” (Phil Taylor) and “Just a Housewife” (Merle Perkins) focused on the stories of the protagonists while intimately engaging the audience in them.

A word on selection bias: There aren’t any interviews from the destitute or the downtrodden included in this production. The show is relatively upbeat. The monologues and music are laced with moderate servings of hope that the associated work has meaning beyond everyday toil. It is implied that the characters’ lives could get better. We do not hear from illegal immigrants who fear being deported. We do not hear from those who have been searching for employment during the depths of the Recession and went to great, sometimes embarrassing, lengths to feed their families. We do not hear from those who could be fired for speaking up. Apparently, interviewees need to observe the status quo to receive recognition. The oppressed do not have a voice in this musical.

Lest one think I did not enjoy myself, Working is full of delightful moments that attempt to endear the audience to the production. Again, these are due to the merits of the cast and both directors. Rather, it is the structure and writing of the musical that do not… work. For a show dedicated to the unsung heroes of the workforce – the nannies, stay-at-home moms, elderly care professionals, public school teachers, waitresses, construction workers, janitorial staff, and all the other professions that do the work that no one wants to do* – one would think this musical would be dignified testament to the often thankless work they face. It needs several more rewrites. Working is for the historians and career performers. The average working Joe will not be pleased.

 

*In the musical, the sex worker role is labeled “hooker” and “prostitute.” If the writers were going to update the show like they did, you’d think that they’d update to use nomenclature preferred by the respective industry (which is “sex worker”). Using the proper label would not alter the character’s monologue negatively. “Hooker” is a derogatory term people use to make women feel like shit. The shame should rest in the persons responsible for using improper terms.

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