Virtuous Flaws

When entertainment isn't enough

When Working debuted on Broadway in 1978, it was a fitfully entertaining musical that didn't quite jell. Its creator, co-composer and original director, the indefatigable Stephen Schwartz -- who will recognize failure but will not accept it -- never abandoned the show. Four years ago, he overhauled the piece from top to bottom. He cut and added songs, rewrote lyrics, transposed the running order. The result of his extensive revisions is a fitfully entertaining musical that doesn't quite jell.

The operative word here is "entertaining." Working definitely entertains; viewers at the current Hothouse Theatre Company production are likely to have an enjoyable time. Sixteen tuneful songs are performed by an energetic cast eager to salute the nobility of the anonymous American worker. But to appreciate why the musical doesn't do more than entertain -- why it doesn't soar to the rafters or sock you in the gut -- one need look no further than the first sentence of the first paragraph of the first page of Studs Terkel's massive 1974 oral history of the same title, on which Working is based: "This book, being about work, is by its very nature, about violence -- to the spirit as well as to the body."

Terkel's collection of 133 Vietnam-era profiles is a secular confessional. The impish interviewer persuaded truck drivers, stonemasons, steelworkers, barbers, hookers and others to discuss the American workplace. In talking about themselves, the subjects betray numerous hidden prejudices -- another form of violence -- that Working the musical goes out of its way to ignore. As an adaptation of nearly 600 pages of interviews to the stage, the musical is a marvel of distillation. But it is a sanitized distillation in which everyone is just too terrific. Working insists that viewers embrace the characters because of their virtues rather than despite their flaws.

Blaise Azzara, Sharon Hunter and Bob Hamilton in Working
Marc Parroné
Blaise Azzara, Sharon Hunter and Bob Hamilton in Working

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Consider, for instance, the sequence involving a restaurant waitress. On the page, she's a prideful veteran who discusses the resentment, jealousy, harassment, tension and guilt that led to her ulcer. Buried deep in the interview, she also remarks, "To be a waitress, it's an art. I feel like a ballerina, too." In putting her onstage, Schwartz homed in on those two sentences and wrote a delightful song called "It's an Art." The number gives Act 2 a welcome lift, but it reduces a valiant woman to spunky one-dimensionality.

In assembling the musical, Schwartz got a little help from his friends. Six different songwriters contributed to the score, providing a welcome variety of musical styles. Actors in the Hothouse production perform most of these songs with verve and feeling. Bob Mitchell jump-starts the evening with "Lovin' Al," a bright paean to a parking-lot attendant. Donna Weinsting finds the hurt in a grade-school teacher who is confused by the changing times. Her prescient song "Nobody Tells Me How" was written 25 years ago, yet it is as immediate as this week.

James Taylor (yes, that James Taylor) wrote three songs, most notably a soulful ode to a weary sweatshop worker ("May I work this mill just as long as I am able/And never meet the man whose name is on the label"), which is sung with poignancy by Johanna Elkana. In a beguiling talk/song that chronicles the empty life of a widower coping with loneliness, the ever-reliable Terry Meddows becomes "Joe." Ostensibly a monologue, "Joe" is actually a sweet duet between Meddows and musical director Joe Dreyer, whose piano accompaniment follows the performer with the stealth of Peter Pan's shadow. Anna Blair's wistful rendition of "Just a Housewife" provides another memorable moment.

But that, alas, is what the production is -- a collage of moments. Despite all the onstage talk about building things, the musical's episodic nature precludes Working from building to a crescendo; it just ends. (It doesn't help that the actor charged with singing the climactic solo, "Fathers and Sons," cannot do justice to one of the most resonant songs Schwartz has written.) In bringing this canvas of characters to life, creator Schwartz reveals himself as a decent human being who wants to believe in the decency of others -- which is terrific, as far as it goes. But it's also possible that a viewer might leave the theater feeling just a trifle hungry.

 
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