Published in Gay and Lesbian Times October 04, 2002
‘Working — Everybody’s doing it!’ screams the promotional material. But it isn’t for everybody.
The musical revue, based on the book of interviews by Pulitzer Prize-winning social historian Studs Terkel, is a vocalization of vocations, a series of reflections of the American wage-earner. The show opened on Broadway in 1978 and ran for only 25 performances, though it garnered five Tony nominations. In 1981, it was a major hit for the San Diego Repertory Theatre, a breakout production many won’t soon forget.
Now, to inaugurate its 27th season, the Rep has re-worked “Working.” And though this is a sprightly, high-energy production, the numerous updates aren’t all upgrades, and the result feels a bit shopworn. The original brought us the stories of vice presidents, editors and copy chiefs as well as steelworkers and bricklayers, but the current edition leans heavily on blue-collar laborers, and the imbalance is palpable. The songs, based on real workers’ words, composed by a range of folks from co-creator Stephen Schwartz to Micki Grant and James Taylor, seem, in the current incarnation, to slant toward downbeat ballads.
Nonetheless, director Sam Woodhouse, with help from choreographer Jean Isaacs, maintains a spry, snappy pace that keeps the piece constantly on the move, though the result is only sporadically moving. The cast is talented and malleable, each of the nine actors playing multiple roles.
The ever-reliable Melinda Gilb does a wonderful turn as a stalwart teacher stuck behind-the-times (“Nobody Tells Me How” by Susan Birkenhead and Mary Rodgers) and the much-missed Shana Wride is sadly convincing as “Just a Housewife” (a song by Craig Carnelia, whose lyrics are currently on display in the Globe’s world premiere, “Imaginary Friends”). Globe veteran Jonathan McMurtry seems a little out of his element here, since he neither sings nor dances, but he does a touching rendition of Schwartz’s “Joe,” about a lonely, retired widower. Christian Whelan is a powerful presence, especially compelling with Schwartz’s “Fathers and Sons.” Patrice DeGraff-Arenas is effective, though she struggles to be heard — and is over-miked — above the whining machinery in James Taylor’s “Millwork.” Jeremiah Lorenz sparkles as a gay-fey dancing waiter, Fernando Flores Vega does a tender turn with the sorrowful Taylor song, “Un Mejor D Í a Vendr « ” and Keith Jefferson breaks our hearts, especially in this post-9/11 year, with his stirring monologue about what it means to be a firefighter. As a hooker and a hopped-up waitress who goes on pointe in sneakers to celebrate her service artform, the talented Leigh Scarritt is a whirlwind of motion who seems to be doing speed in a roomful of downers.
The miking was uneven on opening night, but Todd Reischman’s sound design was hot, the band was cookin’ and the musical direction (Bill Doyle and Steve Snyder) was very well done. Robin Sanford Roberts’ scenic design is a marvel of steel girders, row houses and moving panels, shapes flexibly reconceived as cubicles, desks or computer screens. Highly imaginative, as are Mary Larson’s costumes and Trevor Norton’s lighting. But somehow, it all feels manufactured, a contrived trade-up from true grit to true glitz.
“Working” runs thru October 20, at the Rep’s Lyceum Theatre in Horton Plaza; 619-544-1000.
©2002 Patté Productions Inc.