'Working': Fanfare for the common man

Posted: Thursday, January 23, 2003

Working," the musical now on stage at Perseverance Theatre, is based on Studs Terkel's collection of essays, "Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day And How They Feel About What They Do."

On StageBy Michael Christenson.

In interviews, Terkel has characterized his book as "violent" and "surreal," making it an unlikely source for a Broadway musical. "Working" died on Broadway after a quick 25 performances.

Though the book is a violent and surreal meditation on the oppression of The System, the play focuses on the joys of a job well done, and sings the praises of the unsung. It was hard for the musical to have the book's impact when the darker work-a-day stories, like the UPS man who kicks dogs, or the worker who fantasizes about killing his boss, were put between catchy song-and-dance numbers.

"Working" next came back as a PBS special, where it was bloated and overproduced - much like a Las Vegas Elvis.

Also like a Vegas Elvis, "Working" has been sighted everywhere from Palo Alto to Philadelphia long after its death on Broadway. In fact, since its 1990s rewrite, where it lost a few pounds and was de-anachronized, "Working" has been produced in cabarets, colleges and community theaters from William Paterson University in New Jersey to Roberts College in Turkey.

In its current resurrection at Perseverance, it relies on real people portraying real people, and manages to beguile the audience with a certain rough charm, though in many technical ways the musical was lacking.

The Perseverance set was an interesting puzzle-box construction, but I had problems with most of the rest of the production. The sound seemed thin and tinny, and the singing was inconsistent. The James Taylor tunes, in particular, seemed like they were sung by Rough Baby James, not Sweet Baby. The lighting was adequate but uninspiring and the finale, "See That Building" is still kind of silly for a show-ending tune, despite the additional resonance it has after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.

What's difficult for me as a critic is that "Working" is the most viscerally enjoyable play I've seen in years. Sure, the cast has a variety of abilities, and the production features a rather unpolished feel. Maybe because of that, I found the show strangely engaging.

During intermission, as I listened to someone whistling one of the tunes from the show in the restroom, I decided to abandon my finely honed critical apparatus and just enjoy the show.

This is a play that sparkles with, as Robert Frost put it, "the actuality of gossip, the intimacy of it." It brims with the charm and honesty of regular people.

"Working" is not about celebrities or complex messages. It's about common folk, although I would be remiss not to mention Patricia Hull's abundance of moxie, and Sharon Gaiptman milking every hammy laugh out the waitress bit.

What I have always loved about living in Alaska is that we're a state of amateurs. If you really want to start a radio station, run for governor, or try out for a musical nobody is going to stop you.

What is an amateur, but a Latin word for lover?

Leave the critic at home, and you will love this show.

Michael Christenson has worked as a bus driver, beer bottler, and church bulletin editor, among other things. He's been a pedant, a pirate, a poet, a parent, a pawn and a king.

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