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Review: WORKING A MUSICAL is Relatable at The Merry – Go – Round Playhouse

Review: WORKING A MUSICAL is Relatable at The Merry – Go – Round Playhouse
The company of the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival production of Working. Photo by Ron Heerkens Jr. /GF Media.

The Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival is now presenting a thought-provoking production of Working a Musical at the Merry - Go - Round Playhouse. The musical features a book by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso with additional contributions by Gordon Greenberg; music by Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Lin-Manual Miranda, Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead, Stephen Schwartz, and James Taylor; and orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire. Producing Artistic Director of the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival, Brett Smock, directs and choreographs this simple, fresh, and relatable production.

The musical is based on the book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do by Studs Terkel, which includes interviews with people from various regions with varying occupations. The musical made its Broadway debut in 1978 and later adapted by Schwartz and Nina Faso for a 90-minute PBS series American Playhouse. The musical itself has had several revisions over the years. The 2009 revision includes two new songs written by Lin-Manuel Miranda (yes, the guy that wrote Hamilton). Director and writer Gordon Greenberg revised the show again in 2012, which is the version being presented at The Merry - Go - Round Playhouse (it still includes Miranda's new songs).

This production features a very talented and hardworking cast of ten (five men and five women) taking on the roles of teacher, truck driver, housewife, mill worker, mason worker, IT tech, publicist, and many more.

The entire stage is open (scenic design Jen Price Fick) exposing the very back wall that is often covered by a set piece. Fick's scenic design choice to completely open the stage was a superb choice for a musical such as this one because it allows focus on the characters and their stories.

The show itself feels like it begins a lot sooner than the curtain time because the audience is treated to seeing all the "stuff" that typically occurs backstage right in front of their eyes during a pre-show. The cast wanders around on stage and throughout the house. Some come down and chat with audience members, some prep on stage, and you can also see all the stage hands getting the props and costumes (costume design Tiffany Howard) ready. Seeing and hearing the announcements that typically only the actors and stagehands hear allows the audience to have a glimpse of all the hard work and detail that those that work in theater put into a show. This glimpse into the job of the theater professional is a real treat under the creative direction of Brett Smock, and most appropriate for this show about people and what they do for a living.

The 95-minute, intermission-less show begins with the opening number "All the Livelong Day" (Stephen Schwartz). The actors sit in seats labeled with their real names and then put on their costumes brought out on a rolling clothing rack by the stage crew. The impressive cast then tells the stories of those that are often ignored in the workplaces, explain why they work and how they make time pass in their mundane job, and dream of what they could have been or could still be. The actors end the show by recreating the opening scene, but this time getting out of their costumes (cardigans, jackets, overalls, etc.). Their work is done.

The actors all have their individual moments to shine. Their full-ensemble numbers prove to be powerful and chilling moments as well.

Joanne Baum provides an emotional and very real portrayal of an older teacher who needs to adapt with the times (e.g. her students are disrespectful and play on their gadgets) in the number "Nobody Tells Me How" (Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead). Baum then brings the comedy as a dedicated waitress in "It's An Art" (Schwartz), effortlessly playing off the rest of the ensemble.

Elaine Cotter lights up the stage with her emotion, and obvious devotion to her craft. Cotter may have had some smaller solo moments to deliver, but her energy radiates from the stage and she is truly invested in her roles.

Joseph Dellger takes on various emotional roles. His portrayal of a mason worker in "The Mason" (by Carnelia, and beautifully sung by Eric Ulloa) is powerful, breathtaking, and chilling. His vocals then shine in the moving number "Joe" (Carnelia), as he plays a retired man who explains how he passes his days.

Alongside the rest of the cast, Shane Donovan entertains with the number "Brother Trucker" (James Taylor), which is enhanced by Jose Santiago's lighting design.

Jodie Ann Evans' performance in "Millwork" (James Taylor) is a show-stealing moment thanks to her emotional and breathtaking vocals and humble stage presence. No matter the role, Evans entire performanceis captivating.

Sam Harvey brings the comedic moments when he took on the role of UPS delivery guy. Also noteworthy are his spot-on line delivery and charming stage presence.

Onyie Nwachukwu delivers a passionate rendition of "Cleanin' Women" (Micki Grant), portraying a hardworking and determined maid who is adamant that her children will not be like her even though every woman in her family has performed that job. The determination and desire for your children to have a better life permeates through this musical.

Nikhil Saboo delivers a charming and comedic portrayal of a delivery guy from a fast food chain in "Delivery" (Lin Manuel-Miranda). He then delivers a moving and heartfelt performance of "A Very Good Day" (Lin-Manuel Miranda).

Lauren Sprague delivers a very real, fresh, and relatable performance as a woman who is "Just a Housewife" (Carnelia). The number, which features the rest of the female cast, is exceptionally moving. The women reveal that being just a housewife often causes women to lose their sense of identity. The job is considered old-fashioned, and often makes a woman feel unimportant when others don't consider it a job. Sprague's performance alongside the rest of the female ensemble proves to be a powerful musical moment.

As stated, before Eric Ulloa delivers a heartwarming performance of "The Mason" and then he later shines in the moving number "Fathers and Sons," which features all five male cast members. Ulloa's vocals are consistently expressive and emotionally powerful in every musical number.

The onstage five-member orchestra under the musical direction of Jeff Theiss allows the vocals to take focus and provides the perfect accompaniment to them.

Working a Musical is certainly not a flashy, over-the-top, big dance show. It may not even familiar to most audience members. Yet it is in fact a very simple, real, and relatable musical that can resonate with many different people from various backgrounds and with different professions. The show itself is also very unique and special because it features songs by many amazing and well-known composers. This production of Working a Musical at the Merry - Go - Round Playhouse showcases the heart, detail, hard work that this theater always puts into their shows.

Running time: 95-minutes with no intermission.

Working a Musical runs through September 21, 2019 as part of the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival at the Merry - Go - Round Playhouse. For tickets and information on this production and upcoming productions, click here.

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