Theater Review: Working—a musical based on the book by Studs Terkel

E. Faye Butler in Working. (Photo by Amy Boyle)

By Edith McCauley
Theater Critic

There could not be a more appropriate time to stage the musical version of Studs Terkel’s Working. Twenty-six characters speak of their lives and the work that enables them to support their families and to exist in today’s society. The current recession, the battle facing unions and their rights makes this play even more significant. In the audience at the opening at Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place in Chicago, a gentleman seated near me applauded the story of a union organizer, as I did. At the end of the evening, I asked if he was from Wisconsin. He replied, “I’m not, but those legislators who came to Illinois should see this work.”

Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso have adapted Terkel’s original concept and added the songs of Craig Carnelis, Micki Grant, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mary Rogers, Susan Birkenhead, Stephen Schwartz and James Taylor. My qualms about the musical adaptation were baseless. The songs enhanced the story, and the stellar cast performed every one flawlessly. Michael Mahler, Gabriel Ruiz, Gene Weygandt, Emjoy Gavino, E. Faye Butler, and Barbara Robertson recreated the personae of those who sat in a cubicle at the ever-present computer to the iron worker 1,000 feet above the city.

Entering the theater, we are immediately confronted with the amazing set. Ranked across the stage are a series of tape recorders, and directly behind them are the dressing rooms of the actors on two levels. Sliding doors constantly change the spaces, and the stairs leading upward become the stage for a dozen characters to tell their stories.

E. Faye Butler gives a stunning performance. Her characters are the best in the show. From the opening number, “All the Livelong Day,” as a project manager to the outstanding “Just a Housewife” and “Cleanin’ Women”, the tale of three generations of domestics, we see the true story of Butler’s family. Her tragic tale of a teen-age prostitute touches us all. Every member of the cast has a special role to play. Miranda’s “A Very Good Day” with Gabriel Ruiz as a caretaker in a nursing home and Emjoy Gavino as a dedicated nanny shows us the invisible ones who do the jobs no one wants. Gene Weygandt is the iron worker whose family have worked in this dangerous field before him, and Michael Mahler is the firefighter who changed careers when his job as a policeman threatened to cause tragic errors. One of the firefighters recently killed in a Chicago fire led exactly the same life.

Close to my own heart is Barbara Robertson’s story of a teacher who 40 years ago began her career in a very different world. Asking why “Nobody Tells Me How”, she tells of the changes that have so impacted us all.

One of the most significant things in the program is the following information: The actors and stage managers employed by this production are members of Actors Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.

All musicians are represented by the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada.

All local musicians are members of Chicago Federation of Musicians, Local 10-208. Studs Terkel would be proud of them all. An activist all of his life, his television career was cut short in 1951, when NBC discovered he had signed petitions seeking reform on such controversial issues as rent control and segregation. He refused to renounce the petitions, and his show was canceled. We need him now. Personal note: My own father, a teacher all his life as I was, became one of the founders of the Illinois Education Association.

Working is being staged at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut, Chicago. Tickets are available at all Broadway in Chicago box offices, or by calling (800) 775-2000 or at all Ticketmaster retail locations.

Do try to see this amazing show.

From the March 9-15, 2011, issue

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