When embarking on research for his book “Working,” Studs Terkel was “vaguely aware of an undercurrent of restlessness and discontent, of grievances spoken and unspoken.” These feelings are given vivid life in the Attic Theater production of the musical adapted from Terkel’s work by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso, and the Attic’s intimate size proves a perfect venue for its series of songs and monologues about people “searching for daily meaning as well as daily bread.”
The 1978 show’s score — with contributions by Schwartz, James Taylor, Micki Grant, Craig Carnelia, Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead — remains forceful and fresh. Director August Vivirito employs minimal props and scenic resources, clearing the way for emotions to come through loud and clear.
Opening with the sound of hammer on steel and hissing steam, Vivirito stages Schwartz’s upbeat “All the Live Long Day.”
The familiar frustration of a busy morning commute is conveyed with frustrating accuracy through Taylor’s cutting words “Damn the traffic jam,” and before long we hear another nugget of universal bitterness when gifted Jacquelyn Levy, portraying a project manager, rages about coping with a “Satan boss.” Levy’s fiery monologue has documentary authenticity, as does her later rant against a dead-end job and an expression of hope that her daughter will accomplish more in life.
David Guerra’s beautifully sung “Un Mejor Dia Vendra” brings a realistic ache to his portrait of a Latino migrant worker.The effectiveness of this section is heightened by excellent duet vocals and harmonies from Sean MacArthur.
Taylor’s memorable “Millwork” hits a note of recognizable alienation in the lyric “So I may work the mills, as long as I am able/I never meet the man whose name is on the label.” Show’s ensemble catches another truth in Grant’s “If I Could’ve Been,” her coulda-been-a-contender anthem dramatizing the sense of millions who might have done “big things.”
The acting ability in Vivirito’s cast is uniformly admirable. Their vocals are uneven, ranging from adequate to outstanding. Ronnie Sumrall packs the star power in this production, and he’s underused in the first half. His moment comes with Taylor’s “Brother Trucker,” a gospel-flavored rock tune that charges the show with street energy. Sumrall has a sensational voice and take-charge presence, offering kick-butt grittiness that offsets the sanitized flavor of act one.
Bittersweet pathos and painful reflection are twin themes in “Working,” but there’s also plentiful comedy. Waitress Delores (Laura Walker) claims, “It intoxicates me to give service” and reveals her versatility in a too-brief anecdote about her experiences as a prostitute. Walker’s major strength isn’t her singing but her flair for externalizing the core of her characters.
A three-man band — Bill Newlin (keyboard), Kevin Tiernan (guitar) and Mark Stuart (percussion) — deserve credit for weaving songs from so many stylistically varied composers into a solid musical tapestry.