Revision of “Working” at ACT-CT Tries Hard But Doesn’t Fix the Problems

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Zuri Washington, Monica Ramirez, Laura Woyasz. Photo by Jeff Butchen

By Karen Isaacs

Working, the musical based on Studs Terkel best seller Working – People Talk about What They do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do, has undergone so many revisions it is hard to keep track.

The latest revision (based primarily on a 2011 version) is now on stage at ACT-CT in Ridgefield through March 10.

Director Daniel Levine has with author/composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz inserted some interesting touches into this piece and presented them with effective video and projections.

Terkel’s original book, a best seller in 1974 was based on interviews he conducted in the Chicago area with a variety of blue and pink collar workers. They talked about the tedium, the dangers and the rewards of their jobs.

The original Broadway musical version opened in 1978, running a very short time. While Schwartz (with Nina Faso) wrote the book, the music and lyrics were written by a variety of people including Schwartz, James Taylor, Craig Carnelia, Mary Rodgers and Micki Grant.

Since its abrupt Broadway closing, revisions have periodically occurred. One such was presented at Long Wharf in 1999.

But more major revisions occurred in 2009 and 2011. Some of the characters were changed to reflect the changing work force and jobs. For example a newspaper delivery person, a phone operator and a parking lot attendant are gone. Added are a tech support person, a food delivery person and a nursing/personal care aide.

But even since then, some characters have changed. Songs have been moved around as the show was cut to one act, about 90 minutes

The 2011 version includes two songs composed by Lin Manual Miranda – long before he wrote Hamilton.

Levine, with Schwartz’s permission (he is a Ridgefield resident), has incorporated interviews/video with various Ridgefield workers. An immigrant talks about his job as a tree cutter and specifically as the person who scales to the top of the tree to remove branches. A particularly chilling episode is man who drives others, telling of picking up someone and driving him to his location only to learn later the man had killed two family members, presumably in the house where he was picked up.

The videos are very effectively well done even if they occasionally go on too long.

A six person cast plays all of the various workers. Most of the time, Levine’s interviews/video fit appropriately into the material preceding or following. Occasionally the flow seems awkward.

Each audience member may have his or her own favorite people and songs. I found something to like in almost all of them, even if I did not find the songs particularly memorable.

Miranda’s two songs are highlights – “Delivery” sung by a young man who is delighted to deliver fast-food to customers and “A Very Good Day” sung by a man (a health care aide with a old man with dementia) and a woman (a nanny). It is very moving. But “Nobody Tells Me How” about a long term teacher frustrated by the system, “Brother Trucker,” “The Mason,” and “Cleanin’ Women” were very good. “It’s an Art” sung by a waitress in a diner goes on too long.

The cast works as a true ensemble. It’s easier to praise specific workers since all the cast is excellent. Thus Brad Greer is terrific as both the truck driver; André Jordan was great as the delivery person and the health care aide. Cooper Grodin scored as the aging man and the main singer of “Fathers and Sons.”

Monica Ramirez put over “Cleanin’ Women” while Zuri Washington joined Jordan in “A Very Good Day.” Laura Woyasz was the waitress. Unfortunately her role as the teacher bordered on stereotype with a heavy New York Jewish accent. It also was long with too much of the dialogue repeating the idea in her song, “Nobody Tells Me How.”

Overall the production was good. ACT has conquered the sound issues (extremely loud) that affected its production of Evita. The set consisted of metal platforms and a flight of stairs that could be moved by cast members or rotate on the turntable. Just one part of it was distracting; the movement of the biggest of these platforms seemed random and because of its lack of height, the performers often had to duck under it as it rotated.

However, sometimes it might be better if everyone stopped tinkering with a work that may be intrinsically flawed no matter how admirable the subject or point of view is. Working, may be in that category.

Yet, this is a worthwhile production even if the show doesn’t always achieve its goals. It reminds us all that many people do jobs that are dangerous, boring, difficult and usually poorly paid. Without them, our lives would be more difficult. Yet most of these people take pride in what they do.

For tickets, call 475-215-5433 or visit ACT-CT.

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