Encore Michigan

‘Working’ at The Meadow Brook is a love of labor

Review February 21, 2020 David Kiley

ROCHESTER, Mich.–With all the talk the last few years of the 99% versus the 1%, as well as the rampant corruption in the White House and Congress by multi-millionaires turned politicians,  it seems almost out of step in early 2020 to perform a musical homage to the American worker. But Working: A Musical, performing through March 8 at The Meadow Brook here, takes a stab at it.

The musical, based on a book by Studs Terkel about everyday people in everyday professions and written by Stephen Schwartz in the 1970s, has been re-tooled since its debut. The score includes some of the originals by Craig Carnella, Micki Grant, James Taylor and others. Some of the original jobs have been dropped from the original, like newsboy, as those jobs evaporated. Government Ethics director will undoubtedly be next. But there are two new songs by Lin Manuel Miranda that are most welcome.

Eight actors take turns portraying professions that range from iron worker to call-center operator to Wall Street trader to luggage factory assembly line worker to housewife to food delivery guy to long haul trucker to fast-food worker. You get the idea. There are group numbers, like one in which all the players work in a luggage factory, that break up what would be a static flow from just a series of monologues and solo singing.

The cast is well chosen with some of Meadow Brook’s best returning actors: Emily Hadick, Ron Williams, Kim Rachelle Harris, Cory Cunningham as well as newcomers to the Meadow Brook stage Gregory Rodriguez, Yemie Sonuga, Tyler Bolda and Katie Akers.

When Working debuted in New York during the Carter years, it was an almost legendary fast flop, running less than a month. It is structured as a revue rather than a book musical. There is no arc and no story. It is a series of vignettes for each profession. Some of the songs have had lives outside the musical, such as James Taylor’s “Millwork,” which has been covered by several artists. Indeed, the Taylor song and accompanying number featuring Hadick as the steam press operator, combined with Terkel’s description of the nasty oppressive monotonous work, is the highlight of the show. Too, one of Miranda’s pieces, “Delivery,” featuring Rodriguez, elevates what can occasionally drift into feeling like an “Up With People” performance.

The flexible set of scaffolds and fencing, designed by Brian Kessler works well to facilitate all the different professions, all except maybe the office workers who are speaking and singing about cubicle life in an office of drones. Travis Walter directs the show.

There is a nobility in shining a light on the lives and work of unsung people who do the cooking, delivering, cleaning, driving and building that goes on in America. They are the fabric of the country, though they are most often treated as the fodder by the super wealthy and perennially comfortable.

Terkel’s writing did a better job at honoring their lives and efforts than the Schwartz musical. I know this because while the musical has been re-tooled and fiddled with over the decades, Terkel’s book didn’t have to be. There is something about setting it all to music and choreographed numbers that always feels just a little off.

But schools and regional theatres and even community theaters keep at it, each trying to lift the Working a little more creatively to the sky.

The Meadow Brook does a nice job in its effort. Listen for the better tunes and depictions in this play, and to Terkel’s words when they really capture the grit of some people’s lives.

And plus up your tip a bit the next time someone waits on your table. They are working their asses off even though the work is not glamorous.

Week of 11/27/2023

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