BWW Review: WORKING Tells Our Stories in Song
Working: a Musical
From the book by Studs Terkel; Adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso, with additional contributions by Gordon Greenberg; Songs by Craig Carnella, Micki Grant, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead, Stephen Schwartz, James Taylor; Directed and Choreographed by Ilyse Robbins; Music Director, Jonathan Goldberg; Scenic Design, Anne Sherer; Costume Design, Rafael Jaen; Lighting Design, John Malinowski; Sound Design, Brendan Doyle; Dialect Coach, Nina Zendejas; Production Stage Manager, Natalie Lynch; Assistant Stage Manager, Samantha Setayesh
Ilyse Robbins makes her Lyric Stage Company directing debut with a cast of about twenty-five characters impressively created by an ensemble of only three women and three men in Working: a Musical, from the 1974 book by Studs Terkel. Originally adapted by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Wicked, Pippin) and Nina Faso for the stage in 1977, this production is the 2011 version revised by Gordon Greenberg which includes two new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights). Music Director/Keyboardist Jonathan Goldberg and four live musicians on guitars, bass, and percussion give the eclectic, moving score the attention it deserves in this mostly sung celebration of everyday unsung heroes.
Terkel's large tome, divided into nine "books" of interviews, chronicles the lives and experiences of people from varied occupations in an exploration of what makes work meaningful. Schwartz and Faso selected those stories that they found most compelling for a musical theater piece, and recruited about half a dozen songwriters to collaborate with them in order to convey different voices. Schwartz composed only two of the musical numbers and the remaining twelve songs bear the imprints of Craig Carnella, Micki Grant, James Taylor, Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead, and Miranda.
Working is not a traditional book musical with a beginning, middle, and end; rather it is more a collection of very short stories with a connecting theme for the two dozen men and women we meet in a fast-moving hour and forty minutes. Tiffany Chen (Woman 1), Merle Perkins (Woman 2), Shannon Lee Jones (Woman 3), Phil Tayler (Man 1), Cheeyang Ng (Man 2), and Christopher Chew (Man 3) play multiple roles, sometimes changing clothes on stage and morphing from one job to another on the fly. What is most remarkable is their ability to create a character within the confines of three or four minutes, either in a monologue or a song. Chew drops his fidgety demeanor as a press agent to become a retired widower by adopting a shuffling gait and donning a pair of half-glasses, a windbreaker, and a cap. His rendition of "Joe" blends the joys of discovering the little things in life and the pathos associated with all that is lost in aging. The entire tenor of Chew's role is tilted on its side when Ng joins him as a compassionate elder care worker ("A Very Good Day"), an immigrant who does "what no one wants to do."