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Review: 'Working' at the Old Globe Theatre

March 15, 2009 |  2:15 pm


Hard hats and waitress aprons usually make bit appearances in musicals, if they appear at all. But in “Working,” Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso’s adaptation of Studs Terkel’s book, in which he interviewed everyday Americans about their jobs, these ordinary time-card punchers get their turn in the spotlight to sing and soliloquize about what keeps them busy all the livelong day.

This amiably earnest show, which was canned after 24 performances when it ran on Broadway in 1978, has become a regional-theater staple and a favorite among college theater departments. The underlying idea is so democratically promising that it seems as though someone’s always tinkering to see whether an improved version can be devised for another crack at the big time. But as the new production at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego makes clear, this ginger-ale musical is never going to get audiences drunk with excitement.

Changes implemented by Schwartz and Gordon Greenberg, the show's director, for this latest stab include a slimmed-down book with a few 21st century additions (a monologue by a free-market-worshiping money manager is one of the more timely). There are also two new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer, lyricist and former star of the Tony-winning musical “In the Heights,” added to the lineup of bell-bottoms-era tunes by Schwartz, James Taylor, Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, and Mary Rodgers & Susan Birkenhead.

It should come as no surprise in this age of downsizing that the cast essentially has been reduced to three men and three women — a group, incidentally, that constitutes a model of workplace diversity and gender equality. This is a diligent quick-change crew, but no matter how much elbow grease the performers put into their characterizations, they can’t disguise the fundamental problem of a show that's really just a series of musical sketches, thematically interwoven yet utterly devoid of dramatic build.

The updates, which include the presence of laptops and the voice of a Verizon tech-support worker, are mostly superficial. Terkel, that national treasure who died last year, would have needed to sit down with a whole new cross-section of individuals to find out how the decline in manufacturing, the steady weakening of unions and the continual threat of outsourcing and layoffs have all but wiped out middle-class expectations for those employees armed with only high school degrees. Or the way advances in computer and communication technologies have blurred the line between home and office for white-collar professionals, turning their occupations into boundless round-the-clock affairs.

Theatrically, this new production settles for half-measures. In a nod to Brecht, the actors are seen readying themselves for the performance, mingling before the show officially begins on a set that resembles a “Hollywood Squares” board. (Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt’s conceit is to have dressing rooms that double as cubicles, with musicians in partial view occupying the upper-tier corners.)

A stage manager calls out cues to the company. The lights change and the visuals shift. But these scripted behind-the-scenes gestures aren’t rigorously integrated into the artistic vision of the piece. They’re merely gentle reminders that our entertainment is also a place of work. (No kidding!)

In the spirit of “Working,” let me add that I was made increasingly conscious of the nature of my own job as the 95-minute show wore on. In particular, I was forced to contemplate the peculiar ambivalence of a theater critic unable to smile off his mild boredom even while appreciating the vivacious dedication of performers who occasionally push a little too hard to rev up the musical’s slackening energy.

The numbers that work the best are the ones that reflect the folk-rock zeitgeist. Taylor’s “Millworker,” a somber lament on industrial drudgery and passing years, crystallizes the musical’s ethos, and Carnelia’s “Something to Point To,” the low-key finale, softly spells out the deep-seated desire of a human being to produce something of value for others.

“Delivery,” Miranda’s song about a fast-food worker reveling in his freedom when dropping off bags of burgers and fries, has more pep than lyrical precision. Likewise, Miranda’s other number, “A Very Good Day,” which attempts to reflect the poignancy both of caregivers and their clients, lacks the idiosyncratic specificity that marks Schwartz’s “It’s an Art,” about a waitress who takes exuberant pride in her singular style of service. 

The women in the cast (Marie-France Arcilla, Danielle Lee Greaves and Donna Lynne Champlin) eclipse the men, though Wayne Duvall makes a strong showing as a retiree grappling with tedium and an ironworker who knows he’s part of a “dying breed.”  Nehal Joshi and Adam Monley aren’t always able to convey who they’re playing, or their roles (a flamboyant sociopath ex-newsroom assistant, a  teen hellbent on become a hedge-fund manager "with a golfing lifestyle") aren’t convincingly distilled.

In any case, “Working,” though never a chore, is, like most 9-to-5 endeavors, too generic to be truly transformative.

--Charles McNulty

Photo: The cast of "Working" at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. Credit: Craig Schwartz