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Restaged in front of the AFL-CIO’s national headquarters, ‘Working’ the musical labors to be a vehicle for activism

“Working,” performed on Black Lives Matter Plaza. (Working in DC Team)

“Working” is a just-kind-of-okay musical that has found its just-kind-of-ideal stage: on Black Lives Matter Plaza — in front of the national headquarters of the AFL-CIO.

Holding its opening-night performance on Labor Day made for a sweet bit of resonance, too. Performed by nine polished actors in the late-summer Washington air, the 1977 show, based on Studs Terkel’s 1974 book of verbatim interviews with working people of all classes and colors, is a cabaret of everyday exertion. No opera house phantom or hip-hop Founding Father populates this piece; the characters are all ordinary folks — nannies, firefighters, receptionists, truckers — singing about their daily routines and sacrifices.

Setting the anecdotes of Terkel’s subjects to music by a team of popular songwriters (who include James Taylor, Stephen Schwartz, Micki Grant, Craig Carnelia and, in the show’s updated version, Lin-Manuel Miranda) was an ennobling gesture. A few numbers, such as Taylor’s “Millwork” and Schwartz’s “It’s an Art,” about waiting tables, distill in poignant or witty fashion the mini-dramas of American toil. Alyssa Keegan happens to deliver both of these songs, and they land splendidly, with just the right layers of pathos and panache.

But the conceit has its drawbacks, one of them being a sameness of approach that sets in, as each of the 25 characters steps forward to have his or her say. The platitudes rarely get you in the gut. Occasionally, welcome self-incrimination creeps into the schematic monologues, as exemplified by the arrogance of a hedge fund manager, or the regretfulness of a publicist, who has given his life over to feeding egos. (Thomas Adrian Simpson embodies both, with emotional accuracy.) Overall, though, the musical’s gentleness is such a syrupy additive you could pour it over your pancakes.

All the same, artistic producer and director Shanara Gabrielle situates her production squarely in the region of topicality, a dimension absent in previous incarnations, including a Signature Theatre version in 1997. In an interview, Gabrielle described “Working” — which continues through Sept. 19 — as a launchpad for a broader effort at highlighting the issues of working people through the arts. Her organization, Working in DC, plans to send teaching artists into the District’s schools and explore ways to expose audiences to the history of the American labor movement.

“We are trying to invent something that isn’t just a show and is celebrating the working class,” Gabrielle said. “I have been really interested in reimagining the structure for producing the arts that are civically engaged.”

To that end, she has partnered with labor groups to underwrite and co-sponsor the show — an unusual creative alliance for an art form that far more typically turns to the rich for backing. Elise Bryant, executive director of the Labor Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit housed in AFL-CIO headquarters that promotes awareness of American labor through art, music and other cultural endeavors, enthusiastically embraced Gabrielle’s brainchild. (The foundation’s other initiatives include the D.C. Labor Chorus, which performs songs of protest and solidarity.)

To Bryant, having the national union host “Working” is a worthy extension of the foundation’s mission — and another way to sensitize Americans to the impact of unions. “What labor leaders have never figured out is that theater is the combination of all the arts,” she said. “It really speaks to the heart and the soul and the spirit, not just the brain.”

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Addressing arriving audience members as she stood alongside Andrew Cohen’s utilitarian set for “Working” on Monday evening, Gabrielle recalled that Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO president who died last month, was a fan of the project. Financial support was provided by Ullico, a labor-founded life insurance company for union workers. Its president and chief executive, Edward M. Smith, made opening remarks, too. “How would you rather spend Labor Day,” he said, “than seeing a play about working people?”

Gabrielle minimizes some of the structural rigidity of “Working” by dividing the speeches of some characters among actors, and by making monologues seem more like conversations. The production’s vivacity is an asset, too. Backed by a four-member band, the cast imbues the 14 songs with charm, even when the material verges on highly predictable. We get reconfirmation in Carnelia’s “Just a Housewife” that homemakers feel their labors are undervalued, and in his “Joe” that retirees don’t have a lot to do.

Jay Frisby, though, applies glowing musicality to Carnelia’s “The Mason,” and Theresa Cunningham leads the ensemble potently in Grant’s wistful “If I Could’ve Been.” As a basic primer in the dignity of honest effort, “Working” does hit some grace notes.

Working, adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso from the book by Studs Terkel. Directed by Shanara Gabrielle. Choreography, Ashleigh King; music direction, William Yanesh; set, Andrew Cohen; costumes, Moyenda Kulemeka; lighting, Alberto Segarra; sound, Justin Schmitz. With Randyn Fullard, Chris Genebach, Alexandra Palting, Carl L. Williams, Emily Zinski. About 85 minutes. Admission is free, but donations are encouraged. Through Sept. 19 in front of 815 Black Lives Matter Plaza. workingindc.org.

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