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THEATER REVIEW Working
by Lauren Emily Whalen
2019-12-18

This article shared 1866 times since Wed Dec 18, 2019
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Playwright: Book by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso, music and lyrics by Schwartz and others, including James Taylor and Lin-Manuel Miranda

At: Theo Ubique's Howard Street Theatre, 721 Howard St., Evanston. Tickets: $42-57; theo-u.org ( optional $29 dinner, reservations required ). Runs through: Jan. 26

Jobs: Most people have one. These days, most people have several.

Legendary radio journalist Studs Terkel published Working in 1974, celebrating "the extraordinary dreams of ordinary people" through a compilation of interviews with people about their jobs. Theo Ubique's production of Stephen Schwartz's Broadway musical adaptation—now updated with additional text and new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda and James Taylor, among others—is an interesting watch in the days of late-stage capitalism. Director Christopher Chase Carter's choreography and the ensemble cast are stunning, but Working is a mixed bag of down-to-earth delights and cringeworthy text that shouldn't have survived the '70s.

Over the course of two hours, three men and three women play multiple characters who speak and sing what "working" means to them. A harried project manager deals with long hours and wedgie-picking colleagues. A stonemason expresses pride in his precise eye for detail and the permanence of his labor. After a retiree takes the audience through the ups and downs of everyday existence, his caregiver explains why the difficult job of watching over others is equal parts frustrating and rewarding. From the first paycheck to the unemployment line and everything in between, Working is a musical about still waters running deep within regular folks.

Any show without a concrete story carries the risk of running hot and cold, and Working is no exception. Because it's a collection of monologues and songs, no character sticks around for very long and is immediately replaced with another—sometimes without the actor in question exiting the stage. Director-choreographer Carter works hard to smooth every transition, and the results are small but beautiful balletic moments when a shy third-grader morphs into a confident flight attendant, for example. Standout songs include Miranda's joyful tribute to food delivery ( gleefully executed by Stephen Blu Allen ), a full cast number about long-haul truckers courtesy of Taylor and a rocking yet soulful romp called "Cleanin' Woman," composed by Micki Grant and executed by Cynthia F. Carter in a true tour de force performance.

These positives, however, don't quite overwhelm the negatives: A teacher's lament quickly becomes a problematic whine about how kids don't speak English anymore ( her three students played by actors of color ), a food server repeatedly belts the "g*psy" slur and, even with the updates, certain jobs ( stay-at-home parent and the aforementioned waitress and teacher ) are presented as very gendered.

Working is a tough nut to crack and may not have stood the test of time. Still, there's a certain satisfaction watching the late Terkel's masterpiece in his home city, vocalized by astounding talent and, overall, handled with care.


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