Theater Review: ‘Working, the Musical’, proves a worthy revival at Timber Lake

The company in Timber Lake Playhouse’s production of Working, the Musical. (Photo by Nathan Dahlkemper)

By Bill Beard
Theater Critic

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

About a year ago, Broadway in Chicago hosted a new version of one of my favorite, “off-beat” shows, Working. This musical is 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 in New Hampshire, 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 last year it had now been revised by Schwartz himself, with additional updated interview materials to bring it into the 21st century, and it was being done in Chicago, I was eager to experience it again. And although it was not quite the same, although I missed some of the group spirit, the encompassing warmth of community, I still felt the new version was wonderful.

Now, stateline summer theater-goers have a chance to enjoy Working, the Musical. Go to Mount Carroll this weekend and see what James Beaudry’s strong Timber Lake company is doing with this new shortened, small cast version. Let me hasten to say that I was pleased to find that Timber Lake has restored the two-act format and has succeeded in bringing back much of the personal, intimate quality of the show. This is obviously because of the talent exploding from these six powerful performers.

The group numbers are solid, from the opening lyrics of “I hear … America singing” to the powerful finale “Something to Point to.” Certainly, one of the high points was the ensemble number, “Un Mejor Dia Vendra,” celebrating the beauty and humility of the lives and contribution of migrant field workers, featuring the solo voices of Andrew Way and the lovely Sharriese Hamilton, as well as the stunning guitar work of Kevin Johnson. Andrew’s work as The Mason was also great, and coupled with the versatile Dryden Meints (so impressive last week in Guys and Dolls), these two handsome dudes rocked the standout number, Hey, “Brother Trucker”!

Handling the more mature male numbers, John Chase, well known and loved in most of northern Illinois’ theaters, came into his own in the touching, beautifully simple number, “Joe,” a poignant portrait of a retired widower.

The distaff side of the cast is completed by the charming Erica Stephan of Webster University’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts, and the remarkable Judy Knudtson, well remembered for her work as M’Lynn in TLP’s Steel Magnolias. She is a powerhouse in this production; partly, of course, because she gets to perform three of the show’s best songs: “Just A Housewife,” the teacher’s “Nobody Tells Me How” and the “most fun” number, “It’s An Art,” a celebration of the artistry of The Waitress! Knudtson is spot on with all three of these great character tributes.

Designer Nathan Dahlkemper has been faithful to the Chicago revival’s scenery concept, with six alcoves in an open two-story framework across the rear of the stage, where costume and character changes are in full sight. We are conscious at all times that this is a stage and this is theater, which can make it difficult for the audience to give in to the “willing suspension of disbelief.” And also, with only six performers, bouncing from character to character, song to song, all at a swift pace, we end up with just a bit of an abbreviated feeling, rather as though we are watching a PowerPoint presentation, a sort of computer Photoshop survey. Whereas, the show is based on “real life.” One needs to become absorbed in each experience. So, I must admit that I guess I still prefer the longer, large cast version of this very special musical.

Nevertheless, Timber Lake Playhouse is offering up a fabulous opportunity to see an excellent production of a seldom-done musical, with a superlative group of actor-singer-dancers. Please … don’t miss this chance to see a very special show!

Working plays through June 30; so, you can still see it this weekend. And, I do encourage you to do so. It is a marvelous montage of American life.

For information: (815) 244-2035 or

From the June 27-July 3, 2012, issue

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