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.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.
from the book by Studs Terkel, adapted by Stephen Schwartz, Nina Faso and Gordon Greenburg; songs by Schwartz, Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Lin-Manuel Miranda, James Taylor, Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead. Directed by Shirley Serotsky. Choreography, Kurt Boehm; set and costume design, Leon Wiebers; lighting, Stephanie Freed; sound design, Jake Null. With Tia-Cherie Dolet, Tina Ghandchilar, Jennifer Richter, Meredith Richard and Dan Van Why. 95 minutes with no intermission. Presented by Keegan Theatre through May 13 at Church Street Theater, 1742 Church St. NW. 703-892-0202. keegantheatre.com .