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

CAST: Tiffany Chen, Christopher Chew, Shannon Lee Jones, Cheeyang Ng, Merle Perkins, Phil Tayler

Performances through February 1 at Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-585-5678 or

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."

Jones conveys the dedication and frustrations of an experienced teacher who has witnessed too many changes in the curriculum and student body ("Nobody Tells Me How"), and delivers the brashness of a sassy waitress who treats her shift like it's show time ("It's an Art"). Ng's stone mason takes pride in the precision and endurance of his work, while pride and purpose infuse Tayler's heartfelt turn as a fireman. The simple and mundane paths of the housewife and cleaning woman rise to dignified heights, thanks to the inner strength brought to the characters by Perkins. Although young and fresh-faced, Chen looks worn and bored executing the same task every forty seconds in a luggage factory. The foursome of Chen, Ng, Perkins, and Jones perform the monotonous but strangely ethereal "dance" of the dead-end job to the haunting melody of JT's "Millwork."

Director Robbins is fortunate to have Choreographer Robbins working alongside her, making sure that the little Lyric thrust stage is constantly involved in motion. My one quibble is an over-reliance on circular movement, but the actors take the opportunity to make eye contact with whichever segment of the audience they're facing and do their darndest to energize every step. They climb up and down Scenic Designer Anne Sherer's two-tiered erector set and benefit from John Malinowski's mood-enhancing lighting and Rafael Jaen's evocative, changeable costumes. Brendan Doyle augments the ambiance with sirens and other sounds associated with some of the occupations. On occasion, the mix with the musicians made it difficult to discern the lyrics and I wouldn't want to miss hearing any of the vocals from this accomplished crew, each voice bringing its unique quality to the harmonious sextet.

Schwartz et al have updated Working a few times over the course of the last thirty-five years, adding or removing job titles (new ones include hedge fund manager, UPS delivery man, and communication worker) and consolidating some of Terkel's characters. However, the focus remains on the invisibility of the work force and the idea that people are more than what they do for a living. The monologues and songs bring out the humanity of the fast food worker, the flight attendant, the trucker, and the ironworker. They are the weavers of the fabric of America; we may not know them, or even notice them day to day, but their stories are our stories, their dreams are universal, and their pride is well-deserved.

Photo credit: Mark S. Howard (Phil Tayler, Tiffany Chen, Merle Perkins, Shannon Lee Jones, Christopher Chew, Cheeyang Ng)

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From This Author Nancy Grossman

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