Updated: Jun 14
A Warm and Stirring, Evening-Long Journey"
“WORKING” isn’t your typical musical. There’s no plot, no resolution, no love story. Yet the tale it tells is an absorbing one. By using words and music to examine the relationship of people to their jobs, it paints a fascinating picture of a side of America too often taken for granted.
“Working” has its roots in Studs Terkel’s 1974 best seller “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.” Terkel interviewed hundreds of people from all walks of life about their connection to work. Stephen Schwartz, composer of the musicals “Godspell” and “Wicked,” was the guiding force in bringing Terkel’s book to the stage in 1978, but the show only had a brief Broadway run. It was then decided to streamline the show, adding contemporary references, paring down the 17-member cast to six for most productions (in this case, there are 13 in the cast), eliminating a few of the songs that didn’t work, and adding new ones.
To get that leaner, more focused incarnation that is currently offered in Landmark Theatre’s current production in Long Beach, directed and choreographed by Megan O’Toole, playing from May 27th through June 12th, the pedigree is exceptional. Hamilton scribe Lin-Manuel Miranda delivers two songs. Others come from Schwartz, multi-Grammy Award-winner James Taylor, multi award-winners Craig Carnelia, Mary Rodgers (“Once Upon a Mattress”), Susan Birkenhead and award nominated Micki Grant.
Most particularly, many of the stories have been updated, featuring interviews that have been collected from holders of contemporary iconic jobs, such as a hedge fund manager, a tech support employee, a community organizer, a fast-food worker and a caregiver. While Mr. Terkel interviewed many who had grown up during the Great Depression and survived World War II, the contemporary version of “Working” features many of those stories alongside those of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The contrast, in some cases, is a stark one.
Each scene and each song in “Working” is now a finely detailed character study. The book, credited to Schwartz and Nina Faso, uses sparse, precise language to define a host of characters, played by a versatile cast of strong singers, and they delineate their characters by using relevant accents, costumes and postures as each scene dictates.
From the rousing opening ensemble song, "All the Live Long Day," which incorporates excerpts from Walt Whitman's "I Hear America Singing," we are on a warm and stirring evening-long journey through the hearts and minds of American workers. One by one, the characters in the show talk about their jobs, telling us of how they found self-worth through their profession – or, in some cases, failed to find it. And while there may not be a plot, the script has dramatic momentum as it shows a disparate group of people struggling to prosper.
For instance, in the song, “The Mason” (written by Craig Carnelia), a stone mason (played by Mark Waters) sings movingly of how his work gives him pride and satisfaction because “it’s made to last.”
Some characters are being squeezed by the economy; others, like a ruthless hedge fund manager (Mark Waters), are doing the squeezing themselves. We also meet people whose dream jobs didn’t live up to their dreams. In the second act, we meet a cop turned firefighter (Mark Waters), who reveals the troubling reason he changed professions.
One of the most powerful moments comes in James Taylor’s “Millwork,” a haunting slice of blue-collar melancholia, delivered with hollow-eyed, heartbreaking poignancy by Lisa Bode Heard. The song has been covered by artists from Emmylou Harris to Bruce Springsteen to Bette Midler. But as performed with a gorgeous sorrowful twang by Ms. Heard, this evocative ballad belongs unequivocally to the woman standing before us, a mother of three who toils as an assembly-line steam-press operator in a luggage factory, reflecting on her “wasted” life.
As a line worker whose job is slowly killing her and suffocating her spirit, Ms. Heard captures the hopelessness of a woman who knows there’s no way out: It’s me and my machine, For the rest of the morning, For the rest of the afternoon, And the rest of my life. Meanwhile, Director O’Toole’s crisp choreography evokes the robotic actions that the millworkers must enact eight hours a day.
The show is quite affecting in intimate, contemplative mode: Catherine Rahm as a conscientious veteran schoolteacher sadly laments how her methods became so ill-suited to today’s unruly, less motivated and overpopulated classrooms in the Mary Rodgers-Susan Birkenhead song “Nobody Tells Me How;” or consider Ms. Alexandra King apologizing for the modesty of her role while affirming its importance in “Just a Housewife.”
All thirteen singer-actors provide rich, carefully delineated portraits for each of their multiple roles. Some of the more favorite moments included Agnes Chan's receptionist segment and Doug Emslie's poignant portrayal of Joe, the retired man.
Lily Penner and Charlie Carlos team up to deliver a melancholy "A Very Good Day" (one of Mr. Miranda’s contributions), paralleling the experiences of an elder-care worker (Charlie Carlos) and a Nanny (Lily Penner), both of them serving immigrant families other than their own in a touching mini-narrative.
In rich contrast, Emily Morgan stops the show cold in an exuberant, dizzying performance as a proud waitress who knows that "It's an Art" (Schwartz) to be a good one, but doesn't always get the respect that she deserves. A most talented comedienne, Ms. Morgan demonstrates strong, melodic singing as well as a dancing comedic performance that brings down the house and has star-maker written all over it.
Capone X. Walker quickly moves “Working” into high gear by capturing the joy of a young man getting his first job in "Delivery" (Lin-Manuel Miranda), and Vernon Jackson leads the ensemble in recreating the rhythms of life on the highway in his "Brother Trucker" (James Taylor), bringing a lively presence in the role. Jay Dysart, Mark Waters and Charlie Carlos capture the bittersweet and moving "Fathers and Sons," subtly performing a thought-provoking short story toward the end of the second act.
Director O’Toole’s staging along with Curtis Heard’s musical direction maintained a strong and smooth pace, fully integrating what could be an episodic show into a cohesive and deeply involving experience. Together with music director Curtis Heard, an enviably accomplished musical artist, and a strong cast, Landmark Theatre has brought a freshness to the musical interpretations. Complementing a grand performance was James Carhart's multiple costumes unobtrusively lending individuality to the gallery of workers represented.
Matt Balin’s set design recreates a factory floor using erectors and functional steel windows that swing shut surrounding a metal platform; R.S. Buck’s lighting uses those windows as a source. And projections and video documentation (by Richard Martinez) are shown on those rippled steel windows as well, amplifying the songs’ themes through monologues and providing a sense of immediacy.
There’s really “nothing not to like about “Working.” Listen to the lyrics of every sensational tune. They speak of the lost dreams, hopes and desires of a nation. They’re funny, tragic, perceptive and thought-provoking and all sung from the heart. The musical is a must-see before it hangs up its work boots and clocks out, because the cast, the choreography and the beautiful score will not fail to make you look at people differently, whatever their profession.
LANDMARK THEATRE FROM THE HEART OF LONG BEACH PRESENTS, WORKING, A MUSICAL; From the Book by STUDS TERKEL; Adapted by STEPHEN SCHWARTZ and NINA FASO; With Songs by CRAIG CARNELIA, MICKI GRANT, LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA, MARY RODGERS and SUSAN BIRKENHEAD, STEPHEN SCHWARTZ, JAMES TAYLOR; Director/Choreographer MEGAN O’TOOLE; Musical Director CURTIS HEARD; Scenic Designers NATHAN AMONDSON & MARK WHEELER; Set Production MATT BALIN; Video Documentation/Production RICHARD MARTINEZ & BRIAN PATRICK WILLIAMS; Producing Assistant Director MARTHA DUNCAN; Marketing & Digital Media JAY DYSART.
WITH: CHARLIE CARLOS; AGNES CHAN; JAY DYSART; DOUG EMSLIE; LISA BODE HEARD; VERSON JACKSON; ALEXANDRA KING; EMILY MORGAN; LILY PENNER; CATHERINE RAHM; SARAH SHIMANEK; CAPONE X. WALKER; MARK WATERS.
WORKING, A MUSICAL will run through Sunday, June 12th; Friday and Saturday performances will begin at 8:00pm., Sunday performances will begin at 7:00pm, at the First Congregational Church of Long Beach, located at 241 Cedar Avenue, on the corner of 3rd and Cedar in Downtown Long Beach. The entrance to the venue is through the Courtyard on Cedar Avenue. Parking is available in the LB Civic Center parking structure at 322 W. Broadway, adjacent to the venue. 50% OFF All Tickets to the final weekend of shows. Use promo code 'THRILLING' at checkout. Tickets can be purchased at Landmark Theatre's website: https://lblandmark.org/working/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report