In these hard times, it seems oddly fitting for a tuner titled “Working” to have been downsized (from 17 thesps in its 1978 debut to the current six) and its score partly outsourced (to “In the Heights” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda). Happily, the Old Globe’s stimulus package transforms a heavily self-conscious pageant into 100 uninterrupted minutes of buoyant pleasure. Economic indicators have been cloudy for intimate entertainments eyeing the Main Stem, but if sheer entertainment is any criterion, luck may be with these laboring folk should their jobs be transferred to Gotham.
Studs Terkel’s bestselling 1974 oral investigation, granting expression to the hitherto-unheard toilers of office and factory, got lost amidst the tuner’s original overproduction. Yet despite a quick shuttering, the show’s roster of meaty roles and a jauntily eclectic score by a consortium of pop and Broadway tunesmiths ensured a long life in schools, communities and regionals thereafter.
For this new incarnation born at Florida’s Asolo Rep, the spoken and sung interview excerpts have been streamlined and rearranged for pellucid unity. Situations and images become passed batons: from a trucker with cell-phone trouble to the Verizon support staffer who thanks him for his business; from a prostitute complaining, “People aren’t built to switch on and off” to a bone-weary mill worker doing just that.
Helmer Gordon Greenberg marshals the transitions with precision and wit, turning a goofy PR man (Wayne Duvall) into a doddering retiree, or a housewife (Danielle Lee Greaves) into a hooker, before our eyes. Black-clad techies participate openly in the changes — even the stage manager and band visibly work their magic on an upper tier of Beowulf Boritt’s boxy set — to remind us we’re not just hearing about work, we’re seeing it in action.
Show’s relative brevity reduces the need for dramatic build; the collage is everything, and what emerges is just enough taste of Terkel to whet the appetite for more. People’s need to be recognized for what they do, others’ disdain for menial labor and routine’s mind-numbing effect are commonplace. But the everyday worker’s dignity takes on new poignancy, and even urgency, when dramatized in these pointed snippets.
To its credit, “Working” neither demeans its witnesses nor idealizes them: Job slackers and overachievers are equally represented. We’re brought up short when, for instance, that nice UPS man (Adam Monley) reports he kicks dogs and baits neighborhood women to pass the time; or a kindly schoolteacher (Donna Lynne Champlin) remembers her class writing out spelling words: “Ten times for the dumb ones/And twice for the smart.”
But even Monley’s cluelessly rapacious hedge fund manager (one of the occupations updated to account for 30 years’ worth of workplace changes) wins a measure of affection, so sympathetically and skillfully is every figure played by Greenberg’s first-rate cast.
At the risk of violating the evening’s democratic spirit by singling anyone out, it’s only right to mention a few Employees of the Month: Nehal Joshi, dazzling in Miranda’s new near-rap about food deliveries; Duvall’s unbearably moving Joe the retiree; and Marie-France Arcilla’s devastated mill hand.
Although most solos register, there’s a thinness to the group numbers originally written for a large chorale (and their lyrics are distressingly muddy in the Globe’s miking).
But only a heart of stone could resist the tug when Craig Carnelia’s inspiring finale picks up on the very first witness’s wistful reminiscence. “Some mornings I look across the skyline,” says ironworker Mike Dillard (Monley). “See that building? I helped build it.”
The closing song agrees: “Everyone should have something to point to …/Look what I did/See what I’ve done.” In a sense, “Working” never comes to an end but stands tall as a chain of Hands Across America whose ends finally meet in harmony and symmetry.