Retooled ‘Working’ still feels dated but formidable cast makes it succeed
Christopher Chase Carter has assembled six hugely talented artists for Theo Ubique’s staging.
When was the last time someone asked you what you do for a living? Not just in a cursory, cocktail-party fashion, but in a way that suggested they really wanted to hear about what your work means to you? For that matter, when was the last time you really thought about what your work means to you, beyond being the means by which you pay the bills?
The Chicago legend Studs Terkel excelled at creating space for people to open up about their lives. Whether interviewing notable names on his long-running WFMT radio show or talking to ordinary Americans for his many volumes of oral history, the man dubbed “the poet of the tape recorder” showed an uncanny ability to get out of the way of his subjects and let them hold forth freely and frankly.
When: Through January 26
Where: Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, 721 Howard St., Evanston
Tickets: $42 – $57
Run time: 1 hour 50 minutes, with one intermission
In Terkel’s 1974 book “Working,” he captured people talking about their jobs — but more than that, about their attitudes toward working itself and how their work did or didn’t define their lives. Its wide-ranging subjects included farm workers, college professors, cab drivers, bank tellers, housewives, models, and professional athletes.
You can see how, in the wake of the enormous success of 1975’s “A Chorus Line” — the smash-hit show drawn from the personal stories of below-the-title Broadway dancers — Stephen Schwartz saw musical potential in “Working.” The future “Wicked” composer, along with co-adapter Nina Faso, recruited an array of songwriters, including Broadway composer Mary Rodgers (“Once Upon a Mattress”), up-and-comers Craig Carnelia and Micki Grant, and folk-rock troubadour James Taylor to interpret selections from the book, to be interspersed among monologues adapted directly from the text and arranged by Faso and Schwartz.
The musical opened 42 years ago this month at the Goodman Theatre, before transferring to Broadway in the spring of 1978 with an ensemble cast that included the likes of Joe Mantegna, Lynne Thigpen and Patti LuPone. Despite the impressive collection of talent onstage and off, “Working” flopped commercially, opening and closing in the span of a month; the New York Times review said the show “lacks a workable form and combines elements that don’t agree.”
I can’t totally disagree with that assessment. The sincere musings of Terkel’s interviewees seem to flatten into cliche in the transfer from page to stage, and the various songwriters’ contributions never fully cohere. Both the songs and the stories can feel dated from our current perspective as well; much of the music and some of the attitudes are distinctly 1970s.
Yet just as you can understand Schwartz’s initial impulse to musicalize Terkel’s work, there are enough glimmers of promise here to justify his continued tinkering with the show. A decade or so ago, the writer-director Gordon Greenberg was brought in to update and streamline the musical. Material covering outdated occupations (newsboy, switchboard operator) was stripped out, references to the post-recession economy and the end of job security were added, and a pre-“Hamilton” Lin-Manuel Miranda was invited to pen a couple of new songs.
This new revision had an extended Chicago run at the Broadway Playhouse in 2011 on its way to an Off Broadway production; it’s also the version you’ll see in director-choreographer Christopher Chase Carter’s admirable, intimate new staging at Evanston’s Theo Ubique.
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The six members of Carter’s cast each get moments to show their chops playing multiple characters. Kiersten Frumkin, playing a nanny, delivers Miranda’s best contribution, “A Very Good Day,” depicting immigrants taking on the intimate labor of childcare and elder care. The show’s finest song, though, remains Taylor’s exquisite “Millwork,” led here by Frumkin as a weary factory worker. But the big-voiced Black Ensemble Theatre alumna Cynthia F. Carter makes a powerful case for Grant’s funky “Cleanin’ Women,” playing a hotel maid who insists her daughter will break the family tradition of sweeping up after others.
Everyone in the cast, which also includes Stephen Blu Allen, Jared David Michael Grant, Michael Kingston, and Loretta Rezos, gets a strong showcase or two, even if the show as a whole can’t shake its piecemeal feel. Schwartz’s own contributions to the score are almost unforgivably sentimental, and some of the book updates are real head-scratchers — it makes no sense to give the former switchboard operator’s passage about listening in on phone conversations, for instance, to a Verizon customer-service rep.
But that’s no fault of Theo Ubique’s fine cast and crew, who make this production worth clocking in for; you’ll want to follow each of them to their next gigs, too.
Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.