|The cast of "Working." Photo by Jeff Butcher
In 1974, Studs Terkel published Working, an oral history of working folks talking about their jobs and how they felt about them. In 1977, Stephen Schwartz, he of Pippin and Wicked fame, created a musical loosely based on the book, with four other composers also supplying music and four writers besides Schwartz penning lyrics. The show previewed in Chicago and then opened on Broadway in 1978, running for 24 performances. Since then, the show has been tinkered with and massaged several times, and its latest iteration is now up at ACT of Connecticut in Ridgefield, with director Daniel C. Levine doing additional massaging and tinkering, with songs now coming from six composers including Lin-Manuel Miranda.
The result? Well, if you’re looking for a strong plot-line you’ll be disappointed, for the show is essentially a series of vignettes (most centered on songs, but there are several monologues), but if you just want to be entertained by a stellar cast backed by a four-man orchestra that jumps, jives and pulsates, then Working is the show for you. It is, at moments, bright and bubbly, emotionally moving, and highly perceptive about the working folks who construct buildings, fight fires, serve food, clean homes and offices and tend to the aged, often going about their jobs without really being noticed.
Levine approached Schwartz, who is a Ridgefield resident, with suggestions about how the show might be modified. Schwartz gave the nod, and Levine proceeded to create his own version of Working, primarily by inclusion of video clips and projections – a lot of videos and projections. Some might complain that, in sum, it creates a certain visual overload, but, oddly enough, the effect is that you have been immersed in the Terkel book and in the lives of the people the actors represent, but it also gives the show a very distinct 21st-century feel, for we have (like it or not) become used to images flashing before our eyes and multiple screens streaming information. Levine has also given a local spin to the production, for as he notes in the Playbill, the show offers insights into “what the waitress at Dimitri’s Diner thinks about,” as well as how the man who trims tree branches away from Main Street’s power lines came to his job or “what the owner of Tony’s Deli dreams about.”
There’s also the fact that the visuals are simply icing on the cake, for the focus remains on the six actors who create multiple characters during the 80-minute run of the show, and they do a hell of a job. You have whores and a grade school teacher, a fireman, a cleaning lady, a waitress, a somewhat addled retired gentleman, a player in the financial market, a housewife and several health care workers. And it all works, primarily because these are not cardboard characters – as the actors appear in different guises their voices change, their body language changes, and the whore magically becomes the cleaning lady.
This is definitely an ensemble effort, but there are moments that seem to glitter more than just shine, and two of them are created by Laura Woyasz, first as the grade school teacher who is bedeviled and confused about how the classroom and the students have changed over the four decades she has been teaching (“Nobody Tells Me How”), and then she reappears as a waitress in “It’s an Art,” in which she leaps, glides and whirls as she serves food and makes nice with customers. Her performances as these two characters, in themselves, are worth the price of admission.
Then there’s Cooper Grodin who plays the nasty finance whiz but reappears later on as the retired man who can barely walk. With a wig (compliments of Liz Printz) and appropriate body language, he becomes a shattered man who struggles to continue to give meaning to his life.
Then there’s Zuri Washington’s turn in “Just a Housewife,” a set-piece that must have resonated with more than a few in the audience. She deftly captures the drudgery and moments of despair that many women – just housewives! – must deal with.
Pointing out these specific performances does not in any way lessen the work of the other actors: Brad Greer, Andre Jordan and Monica Ramirez. Under the deft, creative direction of Levine, they all contribute to what is a tremendously enjoyable evening of musical theater, capped by the show’s final two songs, “If I Could’ve Been,” a heartfelt consideration of what might have been if “life” hadn’t stepped in and demanded that rent be paid and children be fed, and the show’s finale, “Something to Point to,” which emphasizes that people, in their jobs, need to be able to claim that they made a difference, that they helped create something, that they were not just drones eking out a 9-to-5 existence.
The show is a visual whirligig, for the actors are almost in constant motion, the set spins, and the various characters appear and disappear in kaleidoscopic fashion, all of this while projections and video clips (the work of Caite Hevner) propel and punctuate the action. Levine has taken full advantage of the technical resources available to him in this state-of-the-art theater and the result is a carnival of sight and sound, a stroll down a midway where every booth is staffed by working folks offering something intriguing, entertaining, touching and, at moments, entrancing.
Working runs through March 10. For tickets go to actofct.org.