Reviewed by Suzanne Angeo (member, American Theatre Critics Association; Member Emeritus, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle), and Greg Angeo (Member Emeritus, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle)
Photos courtesy of Meadow Brook Theatre
The Extraordinary Dreams of Ordinary People
You may just see yourself, or recognize someone you know, working onstage at Meadow Brook Theatre.
“Working” is an enduringly likeable musical based on Studs Terkel’s 1974 book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. A celebrated radio personality from the 1950s through the 1990s, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and oral historian, Terkel interviewed dozens of ordinary people all over the country from all walks of life for his book, which offers insight into the often-overlooked “everyday American”.
A few years later, in 1977, Working was adapted for the musical stage, with the book by noted American composer Stephen Schwartz (“Godspell”, “Pippin”, “Wicked”) and writer/director Nina Faso (“Rocky Horror Show”, “Godspell”). Based on the stories of real people and their jobs, it moves through a series of 14 short vignettes revealing the deeply personal feelings people have about their means of livelihood. It also celebrates the joy of meaningful work, although that joy is dished out in small portions.
It premiered in Chicago in December 1977, then on to Broadway in May 1978 where it garnered several Tony nominations and two Drama Desk awards. It had multiple revisions over the years, gaining contributions by many popular songwriters like James Taylor and Lin-Manuel Miranda. The version presented at Meadow Brook is the 2012 revision which has six main performers – three women (Emily Hadick, Yemie Sonuga, Kim Rachelle Harris) and three men (Cory Cunningham, Gregory Rodriguez, Ron Williams). Their characters have no names other than number designations (Woman 1, Man 3, etc). Rounding out the cast are Katie Akers and Tyler Bolda, identified simply as Ensemble.
“Working” is a nice tribute to the working class – the “salt of the earth”. They share their views on the meaning of life and work, from the mundane to the profound. “Brother Trucker” by James Taylor is a folksy, funky number, performed by Cory Cunningham, that stays in your head long after the show is over. “Delivery” by Lin-Manuel Miranda has a lively, Latin-pop beat. Fine vocals by Gregory Rodriguez and company make this one of the best songs in the show.
Craig Carnelia’s “Just a Housewife”, is a stark reminder that after all these years, being a stay-at-home mom is still a thankless job. It’s performed with great feeling by the amazing Yemie Sonuga and the three other ladies in the cast. Yet another highlight is “It’s an Art”, where a waitress (played with sassy sparkle by Kim Rachelle Harris) shares her trade secrets for providing top-notch service. Another notable story-song by James Taylor is “Millwork”, featuring Emily Hadick and the other ladies.
“Joe” is arguably the most touching number by Carnelia. In a powerfully poignant turn by Ron Williams, a retired elderly gentleman finds himself trying to fill his too-long days, struggling to stay relevant to his shrinking world, and ultimately failing.
Even though the musical numbers and individual stories have no real connection to each other, director Travis Walter manages to find a common thread through the incandescent energy of the multi-talented ensemble cast. Starting off as a single unit, they break off into their individual characters, then merge once again to sing the anthems of the American worker with one voice.
This musical was created over 40 years ago, before the internet, computers and social media transformed the workplace. But despite some dated material, the central message of “Working” is timeless and underscores the sometime uncomfortable truth: Work can define who you are and your place in society, for good or bad, and the lack of it can make you feel isolated, useless and irrelevant. But work can also inspire you to dream of a better life.
When: Now through March 8, 2020
Tickets $36 to $46
Where: Meadow Brook Theatre at Wilson Hall
378 Meadow Brook Rd
Rochester Hills, MI 48309
Meadow Brook Theatre is supported in part by the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kresge Foundation, the Fred and Barbara Erb Family Foundation, the Shubert Foundation and the Meadow Brook Theatre Guild.