Working Review — A Musical that Makes the Daily Grind Sing

If you’re ready for a musical that is smart, concise and genuine, slip into your steel-toe boots — or your power stilettos — and walk over to the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place to see Working. Based on Studs Terkel’s 1974 book of interviews about what people’s jobs mean to them, Working has been freshly imagined and updated by its original 1977 creators, Stephen Schwartz (Wicked!, Pippen and Godspell) and Nina Faso.

The cast that makes Working work

One of the many joys of Working is that it relies on teamwork, with songs not only by Schwartz but by a whole crew of top-tier composers: James Taylor, Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead, with two new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda ( In the Heights). In that same collaborative way, the cast draws strength from its ensemble effort. Six extraordinarily versatile performers — E. Faye Butler, Emjoy Gavino, Michael Mahler, Barbara Robertson, Gabriel Ruiz and Gene Weygandt — portray 26 people who expound on jobs from iron worker to business executive.


Gene Weygandt as an iron worker

Those last two job holders are portrayed by the same actor, Weygandt, within a matter of minutes, as Weygandt changes on stage from one role to the next, pumping up his dead-on Chicago accent as an iron worker and giving his body language a whole new vocabulary as a business executive. Later in the show Butler sheds her sweats ( “Just a Housewife”) for a hooker’s short shorts. The point of these on-stage transformations is that our jobs aren’t necessarily who we are. A work identity can sometimes be shed as easily as a jacket — and sometimes not. No one is born an iron worker or a boss.


E. Faye Butler as a cleaning lady

The show pays homage to Terkel, to Chicago and to work itself. The audience enters to find the cast already on stage preparing for their roles, using the two-level set designed by Beowulf Boritt as a dressing room and reminding us that acting is work. Reel-to-reel tape recorders broadcast Terkel’s original interviews — Studs’ work. Even the obligatory announcement to silence cell phones reinforces the idea that theater is work and that the crew does this every day. But director Gordon Greenberg is wise enough to let the metaphor do its own heavy lifting; he leaves the audience the pleasure of making their own associations.


Barbara Robertson on the art of waitressing

Unlike the special-effects-laden productions that have come to represent Broadway musicals, Working draws its magic from the material itself. The characters hold our attention, sometimes with poignant remarks about their working lives and sometimes with cleverly choreographed movement (by Josh Rhodes) and stirring song. In Schwartz’s “It’s an Art,” Robertson turns waitressing into theater, serving up a side of spirit to her cast-mate customers. Gavino’s superb voice and Taylor’s lyrical composition elevate the grunt work of “Millwork” to the sublime. Weygandt’s shuffling gait as a retiree in Carnelia’s “Joe” reminds us that having no work can be just as challenging as slaving away at a dead-end job. And Ruiz’s turn as Raj, phoning in tech support from India, tells us that if we want to be treated with dignity, we might start by treating others with respect.

Emjoy Gavino as a flight attendant trying to keep her cool

Gabriel Ruiz making a delivery

The compact form of Working and the theater’s modest size suit the show’s down-to-earth material. Working has found the perfect position, like the stone mason in one of its numbers. His salary may not be impressive, but the mason takes pride in his work. In the words of Carnelia’s concluding song, the mason has “something to point to.”


Michael Mahler, E. Faye Butler, Gabriel Ruiz, Emjoy Gavino, Gene Weygandt, Barbara Robertson

Working plays through May 8.

Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut, Chicago

(800) 775-2000

Photos: Amy Boyle Photography









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