Working Well

An upstart company's musical take on working life more than gets the job done

Color me surprised. An upstart theater company has kicked off the new season with a real long shot: an out-of-the-box smash delivered by a stageful of amateurs and first-timers. Is What It Is Theater's production of Studs Terkel's Working shouldn't work at all. This company had never produced a musical, it's housed in a cacophonous strip mall with cruddy acoustics, and its cast of hopefuls is handling material that requires wide talent.

Yet the Working cast — and its clever director, Emily Mulligan-Ferry — has created a stylish evening that upholds the script's rich view of human nature, its melodious music and its double-edged laughter. I've seen Equity productions of this show that I liked half as well.

Working is based on Studs Terkel's best-selling book of interviews with American workers, incorporating real-life dialogue into songs and scenes about the workaday world. The demographically diverse group on view includes a mill worker who enjoys the monotony of her job, a third-grade teacher who doesn't really like kids, and a newsgirl who isn't crazy about delivering papers. A parking lot attendant, a corporate executive, a housewife, a fireman and a waitress, among others, sing and chatter about their jobs, describing their daily rounds and their aspirations beyond them.

Women at work: Kimberlee Hart, Belinda Chron and Edis Donoghue-Chavez loosen up the image of working stiffs in the documentary-based musical Working.
Women at work: Kimberlee Hart, Belinda Chron and Edis Donoghue-Chavez loosen up the image of working stiffs in the documentary-based musical Working.

Terkel's writing reveals his uncommonly sharp ear for all kinds of American voices, and this stage translation — with a book by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso and tunes by Schwartz, James Taylor, Mary Rodgers and others — spins those voices into clever and sometimes provocative slices of life. There are no fully drawn characters; rather, these grocery clerks and telephone operators stand as symbols of how we become what we do. In one scene, a hooker and a socialite describe how their identities are obscured by their work; in another, the members of a steno pool weigh in with amusing but insightful complaints about their faceless "careers."

Under the skillful guidance of Mulligan-Ferry, Working's cast is in continuous motion, executing seamless transitions and handling neatly the numerous character-defining accents that Mulligan-Ferry tosses them. Belinda Chron takes a vibrant turn at Maggie the Cleaning Woman, backed by a trio of Motown maids. The charming Michael Peck plays a cranky African-American parking attendant who bellows bluesy jazz as well as a slender Caucasian teen, with equal aplomb. And I'm always happy to find Wynter Holden's name in any playbill. She's delightful as a telephone operator who never eavesdrops on conversations, and her reading of a beleaguered housewife becomes a tale of proud self-assertion rather than sappy self-pity.

Even with all this competition, Kimberlee Hart is the standout. She changes identity in almost every scene, then turns up in a lively Sophie Tucker-style number about a wisecracking waitress that stops the show.

There are occasional missteps. Edis Donoghue-Chavez's heartfelt rendition of James Taylor's "Millwork," one of the best numbers in the show, is upended by a mind-bendingly awful interpretive dance, an absurd form of expression for which there is no adequate punishment.

Mulligan-Ferry's wisest choice was hiring pianist Leslie Jhung, whose spirited playing provides a better-than-adequate accompaniment to the cast's superb song-and-dance numbers. On Working's sold-out opening weekend, Jhung and a mostly unknown company filled a small, stuffy theater space with glorious sound. I left in high spirits, wondering, "Where did these people come from? And why don't they perform more often?"

 
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