Remember that awkward but earnest '70s TV commercial for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in which actual union members gathered together in solidarity to sing their new anthem, “Look for the Union label, when you are buying a coat, dress, or blouse...”?
Over at Main Street Theater, uncommonly musical laborers gather again, punch time clocks, complain about lost dreams, perform mind-numbing, rote tasks on a ceaseless assembly line, go postal, seek a better life for their children, or take pride in what they do, day in, day out. Although the show is indeed heartfelt if not lightly sautéed in schmaltz, the difference is that Main Street's performers would never be called awkward, and they know exactly how to put across and stage a song.
This is, of course, the musical Working (1978, updated 2012), a Steven Schwartz, et al. show that falls midway in his rep between early Godspell and Pippin, and his later extra-mega hit Wicked. Adapted from the 1972 bestselling documentary and oral history by Studs Turkel that glorified the American worker, even when despair and heartbreak lurk under the surface, the musical is not exactly a book show. Although it has a throughline of sorts, it's more revue or “theme” show. It's about average working people: the unseen, the common, those, as one song has it, “without a face” who toil as human cogs in factories or 1,000 feet above us on girders. The stars include a cleaning woman, a fireman, a waitress, a receptionist and anyone who slaves away in cubicle jobs. They are us.
It's a celebration – a Labor Day parade – elevating everyone who works for a living, be he or she prostitute, rueful grade school teacher, smug money manager, randy UPS delivery men, sympathetic call-center operator, sweet special-care nurse, or loving nanny. Occupations in the revision have been updated to reflect our head-spinning world of technology and service industry jobs.
Schwartz co-wrote the adaptation with Nina Faso and gathered a panoply of Broadway and off-Broadway vets to augment his three songs (“All the Livelong Day,” “It's an Art,” “Fathers and Sons”): Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead (“Nobody Tells me How”), Craig Carnelia (“Just a Houswife,” “The Mason,” “Joe,” “Something to Point To”), Micki Grant (“If I Could've Been,” “Cleanin' Women”) and pop idol James Taylor (“Millwork”). Gordon Greenberg is responsible for the new interviews in the updated version.
Two new songs by fiery Lin-Manuel Miranda (post-In the Heights, pre-his extra-extra-mega hit Hamilton) have also been added to the existing catalog. Both Miranda's numbers are knockouts: “Delivery,” the hip-hop patter of a burger flipper who lives to be sent on delivery so he doesn't have to take orders at the fast-food joint; and the quietly evocative ballad “A Very Good Day,” a duet by nanny and health-care provider who love their jobs but wonder why the parents or the kids aren't around to care for their own family. (Miranda and his brilliant Hamilton, nominated for an unprecedented 16 Tony Awards, will indubitably sweep the June 12th ceremony. I think Vegas oddsmakers know this already, as do the Hamilton producers.)
The original Broadway production of Working lasted a whopping 24 performances, although the show has had a miraculous afterlife in regional theater and numerous school revivals. But the flaws are evident, no matter the hip update.
Every character has a story, a mini drama monologue, maybe a song, but since everyone's treated the same, nobody is featured, thus nobody stands out. This patchwork quality dilutes the effectiveness. There's no focus; it's all theme. Every character is a star. Certainly, they stand out as performers. Everybody at Main Street does, some exceptionally so. (I'm talking about you, Tamara Siler, David Wald, Judy Frow, W. Ryan Frenk, John Forgy and Justin White.) The impressive others in the ensemble are Danny Dyer, Katie Fridsma, Kara Greenberg, Terry Jones, Crystal Sharadin and Christina Stroup. But the revolving-door style disperses our attention, rather than concentrating it. The musical runs on sameness, and you soon realize it's going in circles; Working is its own singing assembly line.
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The perky flight attendant describes what it's like to realize the plane may crash, but she's hustled off to be replaced by the rowdy trucker, who makes way for the proud housewife, who leads into the UPS delivery man, who morphs into the high-rent escort and society fund-raiser. Each character makes an impression, but that's due to the performer's aura, not so much the character's. That's why Working is a bit of a bore. Yeah, they work for a living, and either hate their job or make the most of it; so what else is new? Who are these characters, really? Why should we care? That's the subtext never revealed. A musical with more than 20 leading characters can only be a revue, never Carousel.
But the nimble cast, led through their paces by the equally nimble direction from Andrew Ruthven, has our rapt attention. They fill out their sketchy characters as if painting in oil and sing in utter solidarity. Grounded by Claire A “Jac” Jones's subway tile floor in all-American red, white and blue and mobile steel-girded columns, the set pieces never stay in one place before they're whisked aside to make room for a bank of desks, a restaurant, a factory. Sparse efficiency is the word, neat and clean, clever.
A paean to the American worker (actually, any worker anywhere in the world), Working brushes lightly over the inner lives of those who put in grueling 9-to-5 days. It's a slight peek – appreciative but slight. There's nothing new to glean, except, once again, how exceptionally talented our Houston theater community is. See how tirelessly they work to make the material look effortless and better than it is.
Working continues through June 19 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard. For more information, call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheater.com. $36-$42.