Editors' pick

Working - A Musical

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Editorial Review

Putting spotlight on 'Working' folk
By Jane Horwitz
Friday, Apr. 27, 2012

Could there be a better moment to do "Working," an audience-friendly revue of songs and monologues based on Studs Terkel's 1974 book of interviews with American working folk?

Keegan Theatre's engaging production at Church Street Theater is workmanlike - that's a compliment, not a condescension. Some in the cast of 14 shine with vocal and dramatic polish, and others are less assured. Under other circumstances, such performance unevenness would be an issue, but this show feels more real because of it.

Terkel's book was originally adapted for the stage by composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz ("Wicked") and ran on Broadway in 1978. Schwartz wrote some of the songs, but he also commissioned tunes from Craig Carnelia, James Taylor, Micki Grant, Mary Rodgers, Susan Birkenhead and others. Staged by Shirley Serotsky, Keegan is doing a shortened and revised version of the show developed regionally in 2008 and 2009, with two new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda of "In the Heights" fame.

Apart from a brief nod to a "tech support" person, "Working" salutes more 20th-century workers - stonemason, trucker, teacher, nanny, house cleaner, stay-at-home mom, delivery boy and more. The stage is painted to resemble a thoroughfare with traffic lanes. Scaffolding at the sides hints at construction sites and factory floors.

In a salute to the original version of the show and to Terkel, the proceedings open with an ancient reel-to-reel tape recorder in the middle of the stage; the recorder's so big that it has to be wheeled in and out. The audience hears Terkel (who died in 2008 at age 96), a lifelong chronicler of ordinary people's lives, interviewing his "Working" subjects in the early 1970s. The 14-member ensemble then launches into "All the Livelong Day (I Hear America Singing)," Schwartz's song inspired by the Walt Whitman poem.

We then meet some of Terkel's people - a steelworker (Mike Kozemchak) who takes pride in his ability to stay cool at great heights to build skyscrapers; an office "project manager" (Priscilla Cuellar) who works in cubicles and has grown accustomed to layoffs. In more than one number, Cuellar shows she can belt a song to the rafters and keep the emotions true.

Those monologues lead to an early highlight - "Delivery" (one of Miranda's new songs), in which a young man named Freddy Rodriguez sings with naive enthusiasm about being a fast-food delivery guy. Manuel Ayala Sapelli, a high school student, brings tremendous charm and energy to the number.

Jane E. Petkofsky has a less-assured presence and singing voice as veteran public-school teacher Rose Hoffman, who has a speech and then a song, "Nobody Tells Me How" (by Birkenhead and Rodgers). Yet Petkofsky's shakiness makes Rose's situation painfully real. Stunned at the altered state of public-school teaching, Rose feels shaken to her core.

The Taylor song "Brother Trucker" (a solo by Dan Sonntag) salutes the lives of interstate truck drivers, and it's a rouser. Director Serotsky and choreographer Kurt Boehm put three burly guys in trucker hats and shades into an amusing fantasy number with sexy women.

John Loughney shows power in "The Mason," by Carnelia, as a stonemason who knows his work will outlast him. Sherry Berg has fun with Schwartz's "It's an Art" as a waitress who turns waiting tables into an acting tour de force to keep herself interested. Mick Tinder, although a little hesitant, is touching as a lonely retiree in Carnelia's "Joe."

Near the end, Schwartz's eye-moistening ballad, "Fathers and Sons," sung by Kozemchak's steelworker is tinged with parental and filial regret.

Serotsky keeps things moving and emotionally credible throughout. The small orchestra, led by Jake Null on keyboard, provides dependable backup for the performers, not drowning out the lyrics so essential to a show based on the words of real people.

Nights/weekends required
By Jess Righthand
Friday, Apr. 13, 2012

If writer Studs Terkel were alive today, Shirley Serotsky thinks he would have been in McPherson Square, or perhaps on Wall Street, rallying to the cause of the Everyman right along with the Occupiers.

"He's a guy that for the past century has been giving voice to the underrepresented," says Serotsky, who is directing the musical "Working," based on Terkel's 1974 book "Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do," at Keegan Theatre.

"I've been reading a lot about what [unemployment] does to the psyche of a person who is dealing with not being able to work," Serotsky says. "So it was interesting to look at a show that deals with what we do, and how we do it, mentally and emotionally."

The book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author is a collection of interviews with mostly blue-collar workers. Stephen Schwartz helmed the writing of the first adaptation for the stage in the '70s. Since then, it has been revised to reflect the changing landscape of labor in the United States. Keegan's production is based on the most recent incarnation, from 2009, which Serotsky says speaks to a more diverse workforce, giving the audience a peek at the ups, downs and daily mundanities of life as a firefighter, an ironworker, a delivery boy, a receptionist, a community organizer . . . the list goes on.

"Working" takes us to an often comedic, yet earnest place. The characters are believable and their stories familiar: the fellow obsessed with decorating his cubicle; the joy of venturing outside to see daylight during the workday; wishing you could hide from your boss. The show's music is rock- and funk-inspired, with plenty of feel-good ensemble numbers that work with, rather than overshadow, the acting.

"Our mission at Keegan is this very raw peeling back [of] the layers of acting and really being real, as real as you could possibly be to connect to an audience," says Keegan founder Mark Rhea. "We feel very passionately that [musicals] have to have that same element as our non-musical shows."

The relatively small troupe has mounted an increasing number of musicals in the wake of its 2009 breakout production of "Rent," which won two Helen Hayes Awards. "We batted with the big boys there and came out swinging and did all right," Rhea says. Another musical - "Spring Awakening" - is on deck after "Working."

Rhea tends to gravitate toward newer productions that deal with timely social and intellectual questions. "I love music, and I love musicals, and I'm really liking the rawness of some of the newer ones," he says. "I'm a big fan of the older ones, too. But I think this type fits with the space, fits our thoughts as actors."