Tuesday, February 19, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 136, A Review: "Working" (ACT of CT)

By James V. Ruocco

"Working," the 1978 Stephen Schwartz Broadway musical that took its cue from Studs Terkel's 1974 bestseller "Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do," offered theatergoers a smartly detailed, tuneful exploration of the American working class, using 19 different characters, 18 musical numbers and an ensemble cast of 17 men and women.

It was breezy.
It was enlightening.
It was raw and real.
It got you thinking.
It made a big impact.

But that was then, and this is now.

In 2009, a revised edition of the show was invented by Schwartz and his creative team, adding new material and updated references to the already existing book, but paring down the cast to only six actors (three men and three women). Several songs were cut- "Lovin' Al," "The Mason," "Neat to Be a Newsboy," "Treasure Island Trio," "Un Mejor Dua Vendra," "Nightskate," "Husbands and Wives" - and replaced by new ones including "A Very Good Day" and "Delivery" by Lin-Manuel Miranda ("In the Heights," "Hamilton").

It too was inspired and thoughtful, using the stories and songs of people from all walks of life as its creative connection. Subsequently, the two-act musical was revived in 2011 at Chicago's Broadway Playhouse. One year later, it opened off-Broadway with a cast that included Joe Cassidy, Donna Lynne Chapman and Jay Armstrong Johnson.

At ACT of CT, the 2019 production of "Working" comes full circle with ovation worthy results as it celebrates the working endeavors of such ordinary people as a firefighter, a waitress, a housewife, a mill worker, a truck driver, and so many others.


This "Working" packs an emotional wallop.
Reimagined and reconceived with the blessing of "Working" creator Stephen Schwartz ("Wicked," "Godspell," "Pippin"), it is not only the best incarnation of the musical and its many rethinks, but one that respects its origins, its immediacy, its viewpoints, its close ups and its observations.

It paints a fascinating patchwork of everyday Americans who often go unnoticed.
It is genuinely original.
It is exquisitely sung.
It is a feast for the eyes chock full of vibrant colors and high tech imagination.
It also raises questions about the worker in all of us, what we value and what we've become.

Staging "Working," director Daniel C. Levine brings a seamless energy, compassion and artfulness to the musical, offset by artistic choices that are revolutionary, involving, intimate and wildly creative. Here, as in last year's illuminating production of "Evita," Levine, imprints this work with a steadfast knowledge, understanding and zest that heightens its hypnotic allure, its movement, its evolution, its rapidly changing emotional palate, its exploding spirit and its restructured curiosity, realism and truthfulness. It's also no secret that Levine loves the entire creative process, from casting and rehearsing a show to opening night and subsequent live performance. So naturally, "Working" is brimming with that special love and incandescence that only he could muster, every so engagingly.

Levine is also a master craftsman. Storytelling is key to any musical and Levine crafts a show with a big heart that becomes even more personal with the addition of the real-life stories of Ridgefield workers he interviewed and incorporated into the existing framework of the "Working" story" This personal element, which includes real glimpses of the waitress at Dimitri's Diner to the smiling female customer service representative at CVS, among others, fuels "Working" with eye-opening inspiration and honesty. It's not only an added plus, but one that gets you thinking about other workers you see on a daily basis, from the man or woman at the drive-thru window at Starbucks and the UPS delivery man roaring earnestly through town to the risk-taking man who cuts away branches from the power lines on Main Street and the friendly waitstaff at Gallo.

Elsewhere, "Working," under Levine's tutelage, dazzles with its creative use of arresting visual projections, sound-and-light cues and video clips (designed by Caite Hevner), all of which come together as one against a range of different, exciting platforms. This state-of-the-art process, impeccably timed to the millisecond by Levine and company, is not only a feast for the eye, but one that heightens the emotional rapidity of the storytelling so seamlessly, you continually shake your head in amazement and silently just sit back and say "Wow!" three, four or five times.

The musical song book for "Working" has been culled from the imaginative mindset of Stephen Schwartz, Micki Grant, James Taylor, Craig Carnelia, Susan Birkenhead, Mary Rodgers, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. The revised 2019 version of the original 1978 Broadway musical includes the following songs: "All the Livelong Day," "Delivery," "Nobody Tells Me How," "Brother Trucker," "Just a Housewife," "Millwork," "The Mason," "It's an Art," "Joe," "A Very Good Day," "Cleanin' Women," "Fathers and Sons," It I Could've Been" and "Something to Point To."

Musical direction for "Working" is provided by the very talented Dan Pardo, a creative genius whose professional credits include "Amazing Grace," "Found," "Fun Home," "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" "Stepchild" and the showstopping 2017 Barrington Stage production of Stephen Sondheim's "Company"  starring Aaron Tveit as Bobby. No stranger to musical theater, Pardo creates a wonderful, exacting unity throughout the show's 80-minute length that flows naturally and melodically from one number to the next. Bryan Perri (ACT's Resident Music Supervisor), in turn, leads the music department in this production, and wisely respects the refreshing simplicity and truthfulness of the show's approach, its musical catalog of worker's songs, its invigorating anthems and its breezy, steadfast amiability.

With Perri at the helm, and Pardo at the keyboard and as conductor, the musical score for "Working" springs to life with the able assist of Matt Hinkley (electric and acoustic guitars), Arnold Gottleib (electric and acoustic bass) and Dennis Arcano (drums and percussion). It is rich. It is full. It is exciting. It is lush. Here, as in "Company," Perri and Pardo's inventive musicality unfolds with decided interest, gusto, flavor, joyfulness, purpose and precision. Every single song, lyric, beat and rhythm of  the especially tuneful "Working" score is marvelously imagined by Perri and his orchestral team, which, of course, allows the material to breathe, beguile, seduce and entertain just as the show's creators originally intended.

The enlistment of Chip Abbott as choreographer for "Working" is an absolute plus that benefits the telling of the actual "Working" story and the various characters who reveal their innermost thoughts through song, dance and dialogue. He is not only fluent in the mechanics of musical staging, but  has devised a series of brilliant, innovative choreographic moves, beats, styles and synchronizations that benefit and highlight the truthfulness and honesty of the material. He surprises. He excites. He pushes boundaries to the max. He takes chances. He knows what works and what doesn't. He knows how to move people about naturally as one, as two or in a group of six. He's in sync with the storytelling. He knows how to make things dazzle and pop. And never once, does he repeat himself.

"Working" stars Laura Woyasz, Brad Greer, Monica Ramirez, Cooper Grodin, Zuri Washington and Andre Jordan. All six are a charismatic bunch of performers whose innate charm and personality give the material its unifying lift, spunk and spirit. True to form, the production remains an especially gratifying ensemble piece where each actor embraces the music he or she is given, takes hold of it and runs with it, thus, illuminating its vocal passion and veracity with refreshing honesty, compassion, wit, warmth and dignity.

As with most musicals, there are star turns, standouts and showstoppers. There are moments that make you smile. There are moments that make you shed a tear or two. There are moments when you can't clap hard enough to show your appreciation. But through it all, the "Working" cast of six, all of whom play a variety of different roles with amazing polish and finesse, are in full voice smartly reflecting  the intentions of the show's creators and composers. They have fun. We have fun. And they never once cease to amaze. What's wonderful here is the depth and versatility of each vocalist, their amazing range and control, their individual harmonizing and continuity and how they wrap their voice around a lyric they want you to understand. As actors, they are so very right for each of the roles they are asked to portray. But they just don't play a part, they own it, which in a show as intimate as this one, makes all the difference in the world.

"Working" is an exhilarating musical about people, about life, about dedication, about following your dream and more importantly, the worker in all of us. It speaks to us from the heart. It is filled with truths and real-life exposition. It gets us thinking. It gets us excited. It achieves its decidedly simple, message-oriented aim with gusto, with pride and with a smile. It floors you with emotion. It also unfolds with a fond appreciation and vigor for the men and women who make up the working class population of America that is not easily forgotten.

A round of applause is also necessary for Brenda Phelps (costume designer), John Salutz (sound design), Jack Mehler (lighting and scenic design) and Liz Printz (wig design and hair supervision). Their creative choices heighten the "Working" experience"  most advantageously, and then some. 

"Working" is being staged at ACT of CT (36 Old Quarry Rd., Ridgefield, CT), now through March.
For tickets or more information, call (475) 215-5433
website: actofct.org 

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