Though it was a Broadway failure in 1978, “Working” has been a popular fixture in regional, stock and community theater ever since. Its long life is likely to be extended through a vibrantly updated version of the show, premiering at Asolo Rep in Sarasota, Fla., that gives voice to peoples’ attitudes about their jobs.
Adapted from Studs Terkel’s oral history by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso, “Working” mixes funny, poignant and sassy monologues with a varied assortment of songs by seven composers and lyricists, capturing a broad array of jobs and careers that can be financially rewarding or exercises in frustration.
Schwartz and director Gordon Greenberg went back to the original composers for updates and some new interviews were conducted to acknowledge changing times, such as the introduction of computers, cell phones and outsourcing, and more contemporary jobs like hedge fund managers.
They dropped three songs that were now a little passe (like one about a newsboy), and added two more timely new tunes by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Tony nominated star and composer of the Broadway musical “In the Heights.” And in a nod to an era of shrinking staffs, they cut the cast from 17 performers who each played individual characters, to six actors in multiple roles, adding the acting profession to the careers depicted onstage.
With some rearranging of the remaining monologues and musical numbers, Greenberg has staged a mostly seamless musical in which scenes more naturally flow from one to another, as opposed to the choppy transitions evident in past stagings of the original show.
On Beowulf Boritt’s set, dominated by a three-story structure with four dressing rooms and a third-floor area for Mark Hartman’s band, the actors frequently go through their transformations in full view of the audience, with the help of stage hands and dressers.
Darrin Baker, for example, shifts from playing a jaded publicist to a retiree who regrets leaving his job for a life of relative boredom by removing his toupee and moustache, adding a sweater and slumping his shoulders. Danielle Lee Greaves reveals she is far more than “Just a Housewife,” then strips off her apron and day dress and changes wigs to become a young prostitute who discovers a dangerous but easy way to make money.
What worked in the past remains effective now. Marie-France Arcilla leads the cast through the drudgery of “Millwork,” going through the repetitive motions required to operate a machine that makes fabric for suitcases. Liz McCartney puts sparkle into her role as a waitress who uses a dramatic flair in “It’s an Art,” and strikes a recognizable chord as an aging teacher trying to adapt to new ways of learning in “Nobody Tells Me How.”
Nehal Joshi is featured in both of Miranda’s dramatically different songs. The first is the exuberant “Delivery,” about a young fast-food restaurant worker who occasionally gets the chance to get away from the counter and experience life in the neighborhood while delivering food. It’s one of several buoyant numbers given a lift from Joshua Rhodes’ choreography. Joshi also teams with Arcilla in the sweet “A Very Good Day,” about two immigrants in jobs no-one else wants to do.
Greenberg and Rhodes maintain a good sense of pacing and flow, allowing emotions and humor to build to the rousing group number “If I Could’ve Been” and then ease back to the tender “The Mason,” sung by Colin Donnell while Joshi plays a man who loves working with stone.
Greenberg also uses his cast in a sort of echo effect of movement or singing in several numbers, including “Brother Trucker” and “Housewife” to emphasize that the characters aren’t speaking or singing only for themselves.
The cast is strong in both song and story segments. Donnell is particularly moving as a fireman who realizes he may have helped lead to the birth of new generations because of the lives he saved, while Greaves hits the right notes as a “Cleanin’ Woman” who wants more for her daughter.
Greenberg does not yet fully utilize the set. The actors rarely retreat to their onstage dressing rooms to change or rest between scenes. And it’s difficult to see some of the projections designed by Boritt and Aaron Rhyne depicting various people on the job or locations.
But the obvious care and affection that has gone into this new version captures the essence of working America. It renews a sense of the common spirit that somehow allows us to get up each day and make it through another work week.