note: entire contents copyright 2014 by Sheila Barth
The concept behind Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso’s 2011 musical adaptation of Louis “Studs” Terkel’s 1974 non-fiction book, “Working:People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do,“ is laudable. So’s the Lyric Theatre’s terrific cast, and some of the songs, written by a battery of award-winning composer and lyricists: Schwartz, James Taylor, Lin Manuel Miranda, Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Mary Rodgers, and Susan Birkenhead.
The late radio personality-writer Terkels’ book and interviews recorded many people’s diverse lives and jobs, arranged in nine “books,” tied together with a similar theme. This 90-minute, musical version explores 26 characters through their monologues and 14 songs, taken from Terkel’s chronicles.
The original musical was presented in Chicago Dec. 1977 to February 1978, then on Broadway in 1978, for a brief run - 24 performances. Schwartz and Faso adapted it in 1982, and it has been revised several times since then. Earlier productions featured 40 characters, with 17 actors performing the various roles. At Lyric, six actors rapidly change persona and costumes, mostly on stage, fading from one job and song while transitioning into the next.
Lyric Theatre chose Schwartz and Faso’s 2011 revision, updating its content to appeal to today’s economic climate. They focus on issues such as unemployment, outsourcing, and a new line of jobs that were non-existent pre-1980s. Anne Scherer’s skeletal set, a two-tiered compartmentalized platform and movable ladder, is deliberately scant so the cast can move about freely during this uninterrupted production. So what’s wrong?
Perhaps it’s the play’s structure. Although the cast is enjoyable, some songs memorable, and the musicians are fine (thanks to Music Director Jonathan Goldberg and his group of four), the element of sameness --- one monologue, song and job after another instead of a threaded story line, becomes routine.
Tiffany Chen as Woman 1 is engaging in her several roles, as is Merle Perkins as Woman 2, Phil Tayler as Man 1, and Christopher Chew as Man 3. But Cheeyang Ng adds comedy and spark to his roles as Man 2, while Shannon Lee Jones as Woman 3 overall is fine, but overdoes it as an overzealous waitress, in song “It’s An Art”.
Award-winning director-choreographer Ilyse Robbins leads the cast through its paces, as a steelworker discusses the danger of his job; workers are frantically caught in a traffic jam; a parking attendant has never changed jobs; an office worker in a strained relationship with her boss resents being stereotyped; and a longtime schoolteacher is unhappy with modern changes in the school system.
One of her students is a supermarket checker; the store bag boy hates the market’s piped-in music; a UPS guy loves the perks of his job, but not being chased by dogs; a stonemason takes pride in his work and family tradition in James Taylor’s “Millwork,” while Woman 2 (Perkins) sighs about being “Just A Housewife” in Craig Carnelia’s song. In another life, Perkins portrays a prostitute.
Interstate truckers communicate together on the road, lamenting they don’t see their families often enough, in James Taylor’s “Brother Trucker,” while retired “Joe” (Christopher Chew) reflects on his working days and his non-busy life. In Micki Grant’s “Cleanin’ Women,” the ladies work hard, hoping for better lives for their daughters; while Ng as a nursing home aide takes loving, gentle care of his elderly charge (Chew) in Lin Manuel-Miranda’s “A Very Good Day”.
The ensemble sings their hopes in Schwartz’s “Fathers and Sons,” and end on a hopeful note, with pride, in Carnelia’s finale, “Something to Point To”.
“Working’s” purpose spotlights the workingmen (and women) of America, whose goal in their careers, ranging from menial to monumental, is to be recognized and appreciated for what they do. They work harder, trying to earn more money, to send their kids to college, hoping their offspring will achieve greater goals, and have easier, better lives than they. That goal has never changed. It’s the American way.
BOX INFO: One-act, 90-minute musical, based on Studs Terkel’s book, adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso, appearing through Feb. 1, with the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon St., Boston. Showtimes: Wednesday, Thursday, at 7:30 p.m., Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 3,8 p.m.; also Jan. 29, at 2,7:30 p.m. Tickets:$25-$65; seniors, $10 discount; student rush, $10; group rates also. Call 617-585-5678 or visit lyricstage.com.