Working Well

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

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.

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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