‘Working’ at Broadway Playhouse gets the job done, but still needs some work

It’s an art: Barbara Robertson belts one out for the working woman.

“Everyone should have something to point to
Someway to be tall in the crowd

Upon watching the newly re-worked musical revue Working, which opened last night at Broadway Playhouse, the above lyric made me think: in my career so far, is there something I will be able to look at and proudly say: I did that. That’s mine. A tangible relic of my doing.

I won’t answer that here, but it did make me think — long and hard.

The average American spends nearly 30 percent of their lives at work. That’s a hell of a lot of time to be doing anything — be it great or small. While some identify themselves by their career (“I’m a lawyer”), some view their jobs as a means to an end (“I stuff envelopes to pay the bills”). Either way, like it or not: what we do for a job informs who we are as a person.

Perhaps no one has done a better job capturing this than Studs Terkel, whose 1972 book “Working” documented candid interviews with men and woman around the country — mostly in Chicago — about their chosen professions. Working celebrates the regular people. Cleaning women, construction workers, hotel clerks, police men, waitresses, housewives, prostitutes, teachers, millworkers. Their stories, told by Terkel, are poignant and eye-opening.

So, in 1977, Stephen Schwartz (Pippin, Godspell and, later, Wicked), along with Nina Faso, adapted Terkel’s book into a musical. To represent the uniqueness of each story, the musical uses a wildly eclectic style, with various composers contributing songs to the 100-minute, intermissionless “working man’s musical.” Not unlike A Chorus Line for construction workers.

For this brand-new production, Schwartz, along with director Gordon Greenberg, went back to the drawing board to update the 34 year-old script to appeal to a modern context of layoffs, a faltering economy, millenials in the workforce and the information age. With this, two new songs have been added by Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights), adding an energetic fist bump to the evening.

(I should note that this is the first time I’ve seen this musical, so I’m not comparing this production to others).

That said, for this Working virgin, the result is an uneven, if entertaining, evening. It’s a social survey put to song. There’s really no compelling connecting narrative aside from the basic premise of workers telling their stories, and at times singing about them. It’s insightful, if a bit uninspired. But there are a lot of clever links between numbers — such as when the fearless E. Faye Butler transitions, quite literally before our eyes, from a simple housewife to a street-savvy prostitute.

In addition to Butler, Barbara Robertson, a favorite performer of mine, gets to showcase her goofy, endearing charm and scrappy singing voice. To me, Robertson epitomizes the working Chicago actress, so it’s grand to see her having such a ball portraying other dyed-in-the-wool professionals, such as an old-school school teacher who’s struggling to keep up with the changing times, a smarmy socialite and a bubbly waitress, among others.

Gene Weygandt gets the more subtle numbers in the evening, including a plaintive song about the bittersweet realities of retiring, and does well. Rounding out the cast of six, Michael Mahler, Juan Gabriel Ruiz and Emjoy Gavino are the relative newbies of the group, and they each hold their own — particularly Gavino, who provides a haunting performance of “Millworker” — a song penned by James Taylor that’s probably the best of the bunch.

Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt has smartly put the actors’ dressing rooms onstage, providing transparency between the stagecraft and the story, helping underscore that acting is just as legitimate a profession as, say, firefighting. Though I wish Greenberg used this device consistently — sometimes the actors go offstage to transform professions, and sometimes they do it in their dressing rooms.

As the ads say, this show will appeal to anyone who’s worked a day in their lives. I agree: the music and overall purpose of the show is worthwhile and relevent. And it’s not every day you get to see such an amazing collection of Chicago talent do what it is they do best. However, the creators need to take a few more risks in the storytelling and find a better way to pull all the stories together so it doesn’t simply feel like a slapped-together revue. After all, I’m sure they want something worthwhile to point to when it’s all said and done.

CTA Index: 7.5 out of 10. (A collection of insightful stories and eclectic songs acted by some top-tier Chicago talent does not always make for the most cohesive and inspired show.)

“Working” plays through May 8 at Broadway Playhouse. More info here >

One thought on “‘Working’ at Broadway Playhouse gets the job done, but still needs some work

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