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Working It

Theater Review: Working


Published June 9, 2004 at 4:00 a.m.

"What do you do?" It's a pretty vague question, but when we hear it asked in a social setting, we're likely to answer with our occupation. We are our work. That's the concept behind the musical Working, currently running at Middlebury Town Hall Theater. While an evening of theater typically offers escape from the drudgery of day jobs, this Middlebury Community Players production celebrates and laments industry in ways that deepen appreciation for the myriad tasks that define the working world -- and the soulful, thoughtful, driven people who carry them out.

Co-creators Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso adapted Working, the musical, from Studs Terkel's 1974 book of the same title, in which ordinary people share their work experiences in their own words. Terkel's relatively simple concept lends itself naturally to the stage, as Broadway audiences discovered when the play opened in 1978. Schwartz, who also created Godspell and Pippin, saw his new musical Wicked take home several Tony Awards last Sunday. The very next night he appeared in person at a gala performance of Working in Middlebury.

Working is especially well conceived for the community theater stage. Remaining true to the Terkel-documented testimonies, characters share their stories with the audience, establishing a sense of neighborly familiarity and range of acting talent that feels entirely appropriate.

At the same time, the play presents many challenges. It is a musical, after all, with 15 solo numbers and many dance sequences that weave throughout the personal narratives of individual characters. The resulting play is not a story so much as a lively guided tour through the working world, one occupation at a time -- there are roughly 20 vignettes in all. While some jobs are woefully undesirable and others morally suspect, this ebullient production makes each one well worth experiencing. The mood of each testimony is enhanced by various staged elements: an eclectic musical score, inventive choreography, a backdrop of mismatched chairs and an enormous triptych of mechanical blueprints rendered by Elinor Steele Friml.

Some of the show's most memorable moments are also its funniest. David Wright offers an inside look at the life of a UPS deliveryman, divulging his methods for dealing with dogs and revealing a bit of his own hound-doggishnesss as he vigilantly scopes out "cuties" along his route. Youngster Angus Barstow's newspaper delivery boy wrings the heartiest laughs as he sings of tossing papers into the bushes just to see them go "bo-i-i-ing." His shock of red hair, self-confident swagger and scooter prowess add zippy optimism to the show.

Meg Guilfoy's schoolteacher comes off as comical at first, describing the traditional methods that have served her so well in the classroom over the decades. Moving into a solo, however, her mood shifts. As she sings of being pushed to keep up with the times, a sense of impending obsolescence creeps into her tale.

While Working generally steers clear of commentary on the darker side of day jobs, the show nevertheless addresses a range of serious work-related issues. Jonathan Ellis' grocery-store bagger describes his childhood as a fruit picker and his dreams of bringing busloads of consumers out to the fields to show them where their food comes from. The message is clear -- we take our life of abundance for granted -- and the weight of that truth is palpable in the hall.

All Ruth Ann Pattee's luggage-factory worker needs to do is explain the routinized actions that define her day, and we feel sympathy for her and industrial workers everywhere. The scene becomes more moving as the cast mimics her workaday actions to the music of James Taylor's "Millwork," sung by Dawn Decker.

Whether striking poignant notes or reveling in comedy, Working is buoyed along by a talented cast that really clicks. From the opening song, "All the Livelong Day," their collective talent is apparent in tight harmonies sung with heart. The play's 15 solos reveal some unevenness in vocal talent but a uniform enthusiasm. Director Doug Anderson has emboldened his cast to belt it out in a manner one rarely finds in community theater. There's nothing timid about this production, and some of the weaker singers shine for the conviction they bring to their songs. Given the cross-section of industry that Working portrays, a sense of the amateur here and there hardly diminishes the show. The stronger voices -- and there are several -- are a bonus.

The work of choreographers Anderson, Patty Smith and Vanessa Yeaton is another asset. Dance numbers embellish the songs and do not call undue attention to themselves. Some of the dance sequences are quite clever, though never complicated or flashy. They add just the right amount of dynamism to a play defined by a series of personal stories.

Musicians Chuck Miller, Nick Kaiser, Dennis Bruso and Mark Daly provide solid accompaniment throughout Working, but the overall sound design has some rough patches, including microphone miscues and a sometimes lackluster sound mix of the band and singers.

Town Hall Theater must present technical challenges not apparent to the audience. In the midst of a $2 million restoration project, the building is but a shell of the venue that Anderson and other community members envision. As a real-life work-in-progress, though, the theater-to-be and its rough edges resonate in a stripped-down play with common appeal.

Art also imitates life in Working. In the closing number, Sam Trudel leads the cast in a song about the desire to contribute something tangible to one's community through labor. If audience members are so inspired, they can donate to the capital campaign on their way out. If the money fosters more productions like this one, it's a sound investment.