For the last decade-plus, Stephen Schwartz and others have worked hard on re-working “Working,” the musical based on Studs Terkel’s 1974 book of interviews that had a short-lived Broadway run in 1978 and has become a regional and college staple since. Schwartz updated the show for a 1999 production at New Haven’s Long Wharf, and then again with director Gordon Greenberg for what, after stagings in Sarasota and San Diego, has become this entertaining but slightly forced production in Chicago, where Terkel’s subjects first told him of their frustrations and aspirations in equal measure.
One can respect the labor involved, and the trickiness in trying to freshen a show so rooted in its characters, whose attitudes and language were so rooted in their time and place. Add computers to the cubicles, a hedge fund manager who thinks he’d like to someday teach kids his “values” and a couple of songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda (“In the Heights”) about a first job at McDonald’s and immigrants who care for the elderly, but the show still remains a revival despite its marketing, and still possesses the same internal battle between being a small musical revue (which it is) and something splashier, a so-called workingman’s “A Chorus Line” (which it isn’t).
There are excellent moments in both music and monologue, as there have always been, and to its enormous credit this production boasts the best ensemble of actor-singers I’ve seen in Chicago, which doesn’t breed double threats with the regularity it produces legit thesps.
But even in a mid-size theater, the show seems stretched. It’s best when the performers are standing still and talking, or talking-singing. There’s a reason why the songs, from a variety of composers, have had such a continued life in the cabaret world.
It’s weakest when it’s in motion. Efforts at choreography to represent the grace of a millworker feel awkward. And Greenberg’s self-referential concept — with a set that represents the actors’ dressing rooms, and where stagehands come onstage for visible quick-changes as the actors morph, for example, from a housewife to a prostitute – doesn’t bring us closer to the characters and their desires or their regrets, but makes it more about the performances themselves (actors are workers, too, you see). It’s theatrical, but it isn’t authentic.
Still, as the steel worker says, this may sound “square,” but the show did make me leave the theater wanting to get to know my cab driver better, and wondering about the lives of those who built, and then those who gutted and rehabbed, my condo building.
And humming those nifty, if not contemporary, showtunes.