Review: Brilliant Performances Cannot Save a Stale WORKING

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Review: Brilliant Performances Cannot Save a Stale WORKING

The six-member ensemble cast of Theo Ubique's current production certainly lives up to the show's title of WORKING. They work their butts off singing, dancing and acting through multiple roles each. This is all done seamlessly and organic in an otherwise dated show.

Cynthia F. Carter (Woman 1) morphs from a flight attendant to a house cleaner. She sings the heck out of "Cleanin' Woman" (music and lyrics by Micki Grant) in which her character's dreams of providing a better life for her daughter become clear.

On the low end of the scale, cleaning ladies in Chicago today make $9.70 an hour. Never mind the cleaning lady telling me how she does what she does so her daughter can go to college, I want to know how she is accomplishing it with just one job and how her daughter plans to get that college degree and not face a lifetime of crippling student loan debt. Though no fault of Ms. Carter, what was once grounded in the economic reality of the '70s plays like pure fantasy in our modern times.

As Man 3, Michael Kingston goes from being a die-in-the-wool, south-side steel worker one minute and then a smarmy hedge fund manager. In Craig Carnelia's "Joe," he plays a retiree trying to find identity and meaning now that he is no longer defined by his job and, perhaps more significantly, simply is trying to fill all the time he now has. This too feels like a thing of the past. Other than boomers, does anyone really feel like their identity is tied to their work anymore?

Stephen Blu Allen (Man 2) radiates joy in "Delivery" (music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda; one of two songs by Miranda that were added in a 2012 update of the show). In it, his character relishes the freedom that a fast food delivery gives him (otherwise he is shackled to the counter). His happiness is infectious, but I can't help but wonder why his character doesn't just work for Grubhub.

Jared David Michael Grant (Man 1) gives a bluesy performance of James Taylor's "Brother Trucker" that would be right at home at Buddy Guy's. In fact, all of the acting and singing is top-notch and what we have come to expect from Theo Ubique.

However, the Footlights program notes the place is Chicago and the time is today. Director and choreographer Christopher Chase Carter unfortunately has not succeeded in his goal of making the show feel au courant. Despite the revamped book,the two new songs from Miranda and the stellar performances, the entire affair still feels stale and dated.

As a waitress juggling everything a waitress must do to succeed in her job, Loretta Rezos (Woman 3) makes the most of one of the show's few comedic numbers, Stephen Schwartz's "It's an Art," but isn't really helped out by the lyrics or material of "Nobody Tells Me How" (lyrics by Susan Birkenhead and music by Mary Rodgers). Our sympathies are supposed to be with the overworked and underpaid public school teacher at the twilight of her career, but the material can only be viewed now through a contemporary lens and the 60-something teacher comes off as a major racist in ways that she didn't seem to when I caught the show a decade ago.

Kiersten Frumkin (Woman 2) has what is perhaps the best well-known song from the show, "Just a Housewife" (music and lyrics again by Craig Carnelia), but the premise of the song no longer resonates. Yes, stay-at-home moms (the preferred term nowadays) end up doing a lot more than they would at a regular job, but the economic reality of today means a single income household is a luxury that most of us simply cannot afford. I couldn't help but think -to co-opt a certain popular meme -- "You're letting your class privilege show, Karen."

I guess you can't really blame Carter for all of this, though. The musical is based on the best-selling 1974 book by legendary radio broadcaster Studs Terkel that itself was a compilation of years of interviews Terkel had done with average Americans talking about what they did for a living. Many (if not all) of the original interviewees are probably dead at this point and some of their industries are certainly bordering on extinction, too.

No where is that more apparent than during James Taylor's song "Millwork," in which the lovely Kiersten Frumkin (Woman 2) gives insight to the backbreaking work that her factory job entails. My plus-one turned to me and whispered "are there actually any millworkers left in America?"

There are in fact at least 18,000 millwork manufacturers still operating in the U.S. per a quick, post-show internet search (the internet --that's another thing that Studs did not have at his disposal that has certainly changed many jobs, but I digress).

It is probably a question that didn't get asked when it was first staged at the Goodman back in 1977. Yet, at every turn, you simply cannot escape an inevitable fact about WORKING: you can't take an adaption of something that was of its time and make it seem current. Terkel's writing and many of the people, industries and situations it documented simply no longer exist.

For instance, how do you have a show about employment in the 21st century and not talk about underemployment, the gig economy or how it takes multiple minimum wage jobs to eke out even a lower middle class existence? In 1974, the minimum wage was $2 an hour. That's $10.88 in today's dollars and $2.63 less than the current minimum wage of $8.25 an hour in Illinois. There is one scene in which a young employee (Frumkin, again) mentions that she (like many of her generation) does not expect to have her current job for life, accepts the fact that she can be let go at any time and that the lack of loyalty goes both ways. That's about it in terms of a modern revelation into the lives of working Americans.

The strongest piece in the show now -for me, anyway-is "A Very Good Day" and this is again, one of the new pieces by Miranda. In it, a nursing home caretaker (Allen) and a nanny (Frumkin) lament "for now I do what no one wants to do."

Sure, you may end up wondering why on earth a non-Filipino woman is singing "Mahal na mahal nakita" (Filipino for "I love you very much."), but the fact that our priorities seemed to have shifted greatly from where they were in 1974 is undeniable.

If you go into this production expecting a heap of nostalgia for the way things used to be, I guess you'll be fine. Otherwise, WORKING as a "contemporary" piece of musical theater won't likely work for you.

WORKING runs through Jan. 26, 2020 at Theo Ubique, 721 Howard Street. $42-$57. 773.347.1109 or www.theo-u.com.


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From This Author Misha Davenport