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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Working opened on Broadway 1978 at the 46th Street Theatre with considerable assets: prestigious source material . . . a large and solid cast. . . song contributions by composer-lyricists Susan Birkenhead,Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Mary Rodgers, Stephen Schwartz and James Taylor. Yet for all its promise, the show closed after just 24 performances. Now, while the very real working people who made up Terkel's collection may not have all that much to sing about in these difficult economic times, but their yearnings to find meaning and purpose in their work now has a new kind of poignancy.
Original adapter and director Stephen Schwartz, Nina Faso and director Gordon Greenberg have enlivened the Prospect Theater Company's new production with updated text and staging to present a panorama of the workplace that takes us up to current times. Add In The Heights creator Lin-Manuel Miranda to the composer-lyricist line-up and six actors who are up to the quick changes required to act, sing and dance their way through more than two dozen portraits — and it all adds up to an animated new life for this long-ago flop.
As American workers' have had to adjust their ambitions to a changing workplace, so this Working is less ambitious this time around, settling for a small cast (The Broadway production had more actors and also more characters) amd a limited run at 59E59Theaters' modest Theater B. But fans of the show and its music will be thrilled to see it once again play in New York rather than the community and college theaters that have done it since the initial Chicago and Broadway runs.
Actually, I think an intimate space like this is the perfect setting to give audiences with a taste for small musicals with an authentic book a chance to see some of Terkel's characters leap from page to stage. That leap is accomplished quite vividly thanks to Gordon Greenberg's assured direction. The production elements are neatly fitted into Beowulf Boritt's two-level scenic design. Initially we see only six sound booths where the performers prepare for their presentations of the Terkel recordings. As the story telling begins, those lit booths darken and we see a staircase at tne side for some of the characters to deliver the non-musical text, and leaving the main playing area free for the more choreographed musical incidents. Everything is out in the open — props moved on and off stage, character, costume and wig changes — which abets the fluidity of having so few actors and limited props as well as giving a fun feeling of being part of giving this production's its shape.
Since every member of the ensemble has a strong voice, it would have been nice to see them take advantage of the intimate setting to sing unplugged instead of wearing the head mikes we've come to expect in a big Broadway house. And while I'm quibbling, a word about the blending of the overall sound. The musical palette encompasses a wide range of popular styles and is as well performed by the four-piece combo as sung by the performers. However, when a group of composers pool their efforts like this they tend to wind up sounding a bit too much alike.
Even James Taylor's unique twangy sound here tends to blend in more than stand apart (as opposed to hearing it on his own recordings). Taylor's "Mother Trucker" is nevertheless one of the show's most colorfully staged and engaging production numbers. It's topped only by Donna Lynne Champlin's delightful Dolores Dante when she celebrates the art of waitressing ("It's an Art") with the ensemble. The one truly stand-apart number, Craig Carnelia's plaintive "Joe" struck me as being too much of a Stephen Sondheim sound-alike.
Is this little musical as for the ages as Studs Terkel's style of oral history was? The answer is "no, " especially since it's about ten minutes too long. Does it have some sentiments worth wanting to preserve music and dancing? Indeed yes. Who can argue with the ensemble's final plea that "Everyone should have something to point to/ Some way to be tall in the crowd. . ."
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Book of Mormon -CD
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