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Review: Encores! Off-Center Turns WORKING Into A Tribute To New York City Center's Employees

Unlike most musicals granted concert productions by New York City Center's Encores! Off-Center, the collaborate effort known as WORKING did not play an Off-Broadway run before hitting Times Square. Instead, Chicago's Goodman Theatre production transferred to the 46th Street Theatre in 1978, where it garnered numerous Tony nominations, including best musical.

Review: Encores! Off-Center Turns WORKING Into A Tribute To New York City Center's Employees
Daniel Ching, Andréa Burns and
Malik Shabazz Kitchen (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The source material is Studs Turkel's 1974 best-seller, "Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do," taken from interviews with people sporting diverse occupations, such as farmer, switchboard operator, supermarket employee, jockey and gravedigger.

The thematic, plotless combination of monologues and songs is primarily the creation of Stephen Schwartz, who directed the original production, worked with Nina Faso to adapt Turkel's words into the book and contributed songs to a score that also included selections from Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, James Taylor and the team of Mary Rodgers (lyrics) and Susan Birkenhead (music).

Though WORKING closed quickly on Broadway, the original cast album and a PBS televised version helped propel its popularity, particularly among college and amateur groups looking for shows that give numerous actors moments in the spotlight.

And since WORKING is meant to be a refection on the lives of contemporary Americans, there have been numerous updates in major productions throughout the years, most notably two new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Director Anne Kauffman's beautifully sung and acted Encores! Off-Center mounting adds a site-specific aspect to the show, with many cast members playing, among their multiple roles, employees of New York City Center, performing material by Gordon Greenberg, taken from a new batch of interviews.

So not only does Christopher Jackson flash a sexy swagger singing of the niceties of customer service as valet Lovin' Al and offer reverence to the anonymous permanence of the work of a mason, he also charms as Gambia-born immigrant Abdou, telling of the numerous jobs he took on his way to becoming a security and fire safety guard at City Center.

Tracie Thoms plays his daughter, Fatou, who checks bags at the door when she's not attending nursing classes, but she really tears your heart out singing of the soul-sucking monotony of a millworker's life and of a cleaning woman's determination to not see her daughter follow in her footsteps.

Andréa Burns knocks the musical's perennial showstopper, "It's An Art," out of the park, as she prances across the stage belting out the joys of being a great waitress and, as head usher Tia, explains how the people of City Center feel like a family to her.

Review: Encores! Off-Center Turns WORKING Into A Tribute To New York City Center's Employees
Christopher Jackson (Photo: Joan Marcus)

That's partially because it was her mother who got her into ushering while she was still in high school. As played by Helen Hunt, Angie remembers when ushering was regarded as exclusively a man's job because, supposedly, they were the ones responsible for supporting their families. Appearing in her first musical, Hunt's incisive acting skills are matched with a strong "everyday person" singing voice that's perfectly suited to playing the self-depreciating woman who regards herself as "Just A Housewife" and the teacher who defends her time-tested methods in "Nobody Tells Me How."

Stage veteran David Garrison displays his superb versatility, relishing the adventures of life on the road with "Brother Trucker" and, with aching vulnerability, sings of being a retired man who longs to feel useful again. His City Center counterpart is box office manager Ron, who enjoys having a job that offers the opportunity to meet people, but warns, "If you come in here yelling, I'll throw ya right out. And I did."

Mateo Ferro plays Ron's son and fellow box office employee, Jon, but he really shines as the ambitious fellow who sings of his adventures going out into the city to deliver fast food.

That's one of the two numbers added by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The other, "A Very Good Day," is a simple, but very effective social commentary, where Burns portrays a nanny and Javier Munoz portrays a nursing home attendant, both wishing they could spend more time with their own families as they care for other people's family members.

Munoz, who is also quite effecting singing of evolving relationships in "Fathers and Sons," switches gears as a slick money manager who insists that it's the wealthy who invested in America who made the country great.

The seven primary players are backed up by ensemble members Daniel Ching, Tilly Evans-Krueger, Tessa Grady and Malik Shabazz Kitchen, performing Avihai Haham's interpretive choreography.

Music director Alvin Hough Jr., who conducts the seven-piece band playing Alex Lacamoire's orchestrations, gets a spotlighted moment as a hotel piano bar entertainer feeling the effects of an economy that discourages people from enjoying nights out on the town.

But WORKING proves to be quite an enjoyable night out on the town, even if you have to wake up early the next morning to get to your job.



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