Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"Working" Pays Off Surprisingly Well -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a musical based on the book by Studs Terkel
adapted by Stephen Schwartz & Nina Faso
Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Center, Chicago
Thru May 8, 2011 (officially in previews til March 1)

The shortest theater review in history is commonly credited to legendary critic Walter Kerr, who sublimely summed up his take on a 1951 played called I Am A Camera by writing simply: "Me no Leica."

Before heading to the Broadway Playhouse to catch the first night of a newly revamped musical called Working--which was originally created in 1978 based on a book by Studs Terkel--I wondered if potential displeasure might prompt me to compete for the "shortest review" title.

Fortunately, although "Working isn't" and "Working stinks" came to my always semantically-inclined mind, the show itself quickly proved that Working needn't engender such negativity. Nor brevity, which has never been a strong suit (and "Working is" just doesn't have the same ring).

Mind you, although I am far from a professional critic and not forbidden from reviewing "Preview" performances--nor caught up in the recent controversy on the matter--I probably wouldn't have felt too good about slamming a recently re-created show on its first night in town, even in two words or less.

But even if I didn't see the show in peak Working condition, I was tremendously impressed with the content, production and performances. Somewhat surprisingly so.

I was largely oblivious to the history of the show until yesterday--I'd heard of the book but have never read it--so didn't realize the 1978 Broadway run was nominated for five Tony Awards. And while the pedigrees of the multiple songwriters involved were quite stellar, I was skeptical about Working coming off as something more than a stunted, stylistically-divergent revue of songs about working life.

But in accompanying compelling insights based on Terkel's interviews (and some more recent ones) with individuals in a range of occupations, the instantly apparent quality & depth of the songs was remarkable. It says much about the resonance of the 1978 tunes by Stephen Schwartz (of Wicked fame), James Taylor, Craig Carnelia, Mary Rogers/Susan Birkenhead and Micki Grant that none seemed out of place in 2011--though a few of the old songs have been dropped--even next to two newly-penned numbers by streetwise In The Heights creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.

With Gordon Greenberg directing a uniformly wonderful cast of Chicago stage stalwarts E. Faye Butler, Barbara Robertson and Gene Weygandt alongside the younger trio of Michael Mahler, Emjoy Gavino and Gabriel Ruiz, a few of the many highlights included Schwartz's "All the Livelong Day" & "It's an Art" (about waitressing), Miranda's "Delivery," Taylor's "Brother Trucker" & "Millwork" and Carnelia's touching, Sondheimesque "Joe" about a recent retiree.

In addition to finding the employee vignettes--some within songs, some without--rather riveting, perhaps in keeping with Studs' man-of-the-people sensibilities, I noted how nearly all the occupations showcased were ones involving building things, directly helping others or otherwise doing something quite tangible.

Chicago's late, great Studs Terkel
In other words, there were no odes to the joy of trading derivatives. In fact, a non-singing character of a hedge fund manager came off with less likability than that of a prostitute.

As a 90-minute one-act show with often tenuous connectivity from one musical number to the next, Working isn't going to make anyone forget that Les Miserables is also in town. But in terms of accomplishing what it intends to do, Working pays off remarkably well.

With Schwartz--who originally adapted Terkel's 1974 book with Nina Faso--directly involved in this new production, which is well-suited to the comfortably intimate Broadway Playhouse, features local actors and isn't merely the latest stop of a road show, this is a rewarding work of musical theater any Chicagoan should work to see. (It should even go over well with atypical theatergoers.)

Mind you, outside a Broadway In Chicago subscription, standard ticket prices may be a bit steep for working (and especially non-working) stiffs. But with half-price tickets already showing up on HotTix, you shouldn't have to spend your whole income on Working.

1 comment:

Greg Boyd said...

I'll be going to this one in a few weeks. Glad you enjoyed it!