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THEATER: "Working, a Musical"

Singing for their supper



With the economy still struggling and a national unemployment rate of nearly 8 percent, work is on the mind of every politician — and voter. So the timing is smart for a revival of "Working," a musical that first debuted in the 1970's, based on the book "Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do" by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and oral historian Studs Terkel.

"Working, A Musical" takes stories from various members of the United States labor force — supermarket checkout girl, iron worker, mason, UPS delivery guy — and sets them to song. Some of the numbers in the show currently at the JCC, directed by David Runzo, come from the original Broadway adaptation by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso. Others were introduced during various revisions of the show, including a recent one by Lin-Manuel Miranda of "In the Heights" fame.

"Working" features both spoken-word oral histories and song-and-dance numbers. The musical pieces are energetic and entertaining, but the monologues give the show some substance, and occasionally make some interesting points about the changing nature of our country's labor force. For instance, the project-manager character mentions the difference in her company between "lifers" — people 20 years her senior — who expect to stay at their place of employment until retirement, and people in her own generation, who take a job for the experience, but always planned to move on to something bigger and better.

Halfway into the show I found myself craving more of that kind of material — after all, there's plenty to discuss when it comes to what's happening to jobs in this country. But for the most part, "Working" keeps things on the surface. Girls sing about how they always dreamed of being a supermarket check-out girl on Treasure Island (really?), a custodial staff croons about how their children will have better lives. The songs are pleasant contemporary musical-theater fare, but there are times where the show gets too sentimental, even bordering on cheesy.

Thankfully, a group of eight talented performers makes the most of the material. Jodi Beckwith, Sammi Cohen, Laura Marron, Matt Moyne, Ralph Meranto, David Munnell, Jonathan Ntheketha, and Mary Tiballi play multiple roles, some appearing on stage more often than others. All do a good job with both the acting and singing, but it is the women who particularly impress. The strongest numbers in the show belong to them, including the excellent "Just a Housewife," the waitress tour-de-force "It's an Art," and the smart duet between the babysitter and the home-health aide.

The group numbers that open and close both halves of the show are also well executed — this ensemble makes for some lovely harmonies — and it's tough to deny the allure of that rootin'-tootin' trucker song. The show overall is entertaining, and the performance level is high. Just know that the content for the most part is fairly light.

However, my companion pointed out that "Working" does offer something unusual. It very much is a celebration of the American worker, leaning heavily toward the blue-collar side of the spectrum. It's not often that stonemasons or truckers or luggage-factory workers get to have their stories told on stage. One of the themes of the show is that everyone should be able to point to something and take pride in saying, "Hey, I made/did that!"

On a related note, the show closes with the cast and crew telling the audience what they do for their day jobs. Some are teachers, some are students, some are development directors, one is the artistic director of the JCC CenterStage. It's a reminder that our bountiful local theater scene draws performers from a variety of backgrounds, and that just because your day job might be one thing, you can still live out your dreams after you punch the clock.

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