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STAGE REVIEW : ‘WORKING’ IT ALL OUT: LABOR OF MUSICAL LOVE

“Working” is a musical that uses found materialism in the way many artists use found material for their pieces. Adapted by Stephen (“Godspell”) Schwartz and Nina Faso from Studs Terkel’s documentary book of American working lives, it retains and revivifies the statements, complaints, recollections and self-portraits of people who know themselves by the job they do. “What?” they complain, “Monday already?” That could be another title for the show.

Or at least the edition Gordon McManus has staged at Actors Alley. The recent labor thunderstorms on the Equity Waiver scene have put a particular accent on this, the seventh local production of the musical. These are actors working--for nothing. Not even their 9-to-5 characters can complain about that. But the cast membershardly seem to mind. Check that; they relish it.

Indeed, add “Working” to the current spate of musicals that is making Waiver a good place to go for a song and dance. Like the 1980 Cast Theatre production, the very nature of the tight Actors Alley space is used to maximum advantage. And though there must, by need, be more song than dance in this “Working,” the passion of the ensemble and solo singing could ignite a welder’s arc. Actors Alley has been growing, but this is at an entirely new level.

A staged working stiff simply has to be the genuine article, or he comes off as wooden and patronizing. That, one supposes, is the greatest risk with this show. Can Luana Jackman capture her hooker’s frank pride as well as the inner glimpse of amazement at whatshe does without giving the glimpse away? Can Gary Reed see inside his hip copy boy enough to play the irony of this radical vegetarian threatening violence--without the irony backfiring? Can Susan McBride pull her housewife out of the trap of endless self-loathing and imbue her with real tragedy?

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These are perhaps the three trickiest turns, but they all work. And in McBride’s case, with “Just a Housewife,” it sings and scorches at an emotional temperature rare in the American musical form.

Perhaps because “the book” of “Working” really consists of extracts from Terkel’s conversations (and, thus, has the actual language of folks who work), perhaps because McManus and the cast have so thoroughly listened and believed in that language (never grating or cliched, always fluid), the audience never catches itself in disbelief at these performances. Oh, maybe Bobbi Holtzman can’t sing her teacher’s song, but we don’t doubt her profession for a second.

Nor do we mind the taped music of a wondrous collective of composers (including James Taylor), sharply delivered by Domenic Genova, Bud Harner, Steve Watson and Alan Steinberger. They couldn’t fit in this space anyway.

Sydney Z. Litwack’s expressionist set forms an evocative backdrop of the urban industrial dream/nightmare, rather than a jungle gym for working actors that a less sensitive designer might have hatched. A good choice. But then, this is a show brimming with good choices.

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Sad to say, “Working” closes Saturday, with performances at 2 and 8 p.m.; (818) 986-7440. At press time, however, negotiations were under way to move the show into an Equity space. Stay tuned.


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