Theater Review: ‘Working’ a worthy revival in Chicago
By Bill Beard
The New York theater scene has featured a great many revivals in the past several years—revivals of some of Broadway’s biggest hits and favorites—some successful, others not so much. Sondheim’s biggies seem to work well, such as Company, Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music. Others are only moderately touted, such as Gypsy, The Man of Lamancha and even 42nd Street.
Currently playing in New York are revivals of shows from 1934 (Anything Goes), 1961 (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying), 1975 (Chicago) and 1983 (La Cage Aux Folles). And, of course, many of the successful redos come to Chicago on their national tours. I just reviewed the re-make of Hair last month, and, in fact, found it disappointing, not even approaching the impact it had in its original release.
Now playing at the newly refurbished and expanded Broadway Theatre (the former Drury Lane Water Tower with new lobby and entrance), is yet one more revival, this time 1978’s Working, the musical based on Studs Terkel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, in which he recorded his interviews of America’s working folks across the nation. Stephen Schwartz took Terkel’s collection of honest, down-to-earth stories, as told by very real people, and with music of his own, together with the compositions of several other successful composers of the period, and produced an evening of drama, comedy and poignant honesty and intimacy, which encompassed the spectrum of the American working class.
I produced Working in the late 1970s with college students and local adults. It seemed a privilege just to put it on stage and offer it to audiences. It was so sincere, so truthful, so honest, so very real. So, when I heard it had now been revived by Schwartz himself, with additional updated interview materials to bring it into the 21st century, and when I read it had been cut to 90 minutes, with some songs eliminated, but with new ones added, and was to be played with no intermission, I was eager and excited about seeing it.
Let me assure you that this is still a wonderful show; it still has the power of revealing the true American spirit; the spirit of the beautiful working population of our country; the pride and promise of real democracy. The characters are real; they are your neighbors and friends. We absolutely know them! The music is still strong and appropriate. The dialogue still rings true to the original interviews.
But somehow I found myself wishing for the original version. This shorter, one long act adaptation left my appetite unsatiated; and I think I know why.
There was a “rushed,” sort of head-long pace, almost a surface-only feeling to most of the numbers (with exceptions that I will mention later), as though some of these characters (or their occupations) were not worth allowing a chance to really penetrate our thoughts and feelings. I felt as though I were watching a sort-of PowerPoint presentation of things I really wanted to experience for real. I wanted “life,” not a computer Photoshop survey. It was just a bit too “slick.”
Having said all that, let me reassure you, once again, of the overall quality of this work, even in its new format. It is still an important piece of musical theater; and this cast is wonderful!
Standout moments certainly include the work of the wonderful Barbara Robertson, whose breadth of talent encompasses such roles as The Teacher, whose heart-wrenching realization that her long-held teaching methods are out-dated; she still wants desperately to be able to enrich the lives of today’s students, but “Nobody Tells Me How!” (music by Mary Rogers and Susan Birkenhead). Robertson is great also in the energetic fun-loving role of The Waitress, whose upbeat, bright and cheery view of her job (even with her sore feet and rude customers) convinces the audience that she honestly thinks of her occupation thusly: “It’s An Art!”
Another special moment was the soul-touching rendition by the talented young Michael Mahler of Craig Carnelia’s touching song, “The Mason.” I first saw this singer-guitarist two years ago with Highland Park’s The Musical Theatre Company, in their annual 48 Hour Musicals production. His talent is perfect here.
Of course, the superb work of Chicago’s favorite, Gene Weygandt (especially as the ironworker in Fathers and Sons), along with Gabriel Ruiz and Emjoy Gavino, made for an evening of fine entertainment; and even though I missed the genius of E. Faye Butler, her roles were well handled by understudy, Genevieve VenJohnson.
Other strong numbers included “If I Could Have Been” by Micki Grant, and the poignant “Joe” and the sensitive “Just A Housewife,” both written by Carnelia.
Working plays through June 5, so you still have plenty of time to see it. And I do encourage you to do so. It is still a marvelous montage of American life.
For information: 800-775-2000 or www.broadwayinchicago.com.
From the May 4-10, 2011 issue
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