Lyric Stages Moving Production of ‘Working’ (4 Stars)

Working – From the book by Studs Terkel;  Adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso; Directed & Choreographed by Ilyse Robbins; Songs by Craig Carnella, Micki Grant, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead, Stephen Schwartz, James Taylor; Music Direction by Jonathan Goldberg. Produced by Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon St., Boston through February 2nd.

When I first heard that the Lyric Stage was mounting a revival of the musical version of “Working”, based on the popular 1974 book by Studs Terkels (in which he interviews people about the work they do and how they feel about it), my first thought was, quite frankly, “Why?” It’s a great book, but hardly the kind of literature that you’d think of as source material for a musical. For starters, it’s certainly no love story, given that most people don’t really even much like their jobs, and well…it’s about working, a topic that has never really inspired many memorable songs. And after the first few numbers, I thought my fears might be realized. “All the Livelong Day” was a decent opener and “Delivery” – about a kid who delivers fast food – was kind of cute, but I began to think that the rest of the show was just going to be a pointless revue about people and their workaday lives. But I’m quite happy to report that I was (as I frequently am) dead wrong.
“Working” is less a traditional musical than a series of vignettes – some spoken word, some musical numbers – that are true to the source material, and that makes for some compelling theater in this fine production. What “Working” does is put a human face on many of the occupations we just don’t think very much about – steel workers, teachers, cleaning women, the UPS guy, stone masons, nannies, and factory workers – and while there’s nothing sexy about what they do, there’s an awful lot of folks in this country doing those jobs, and each occupation has a story to tell. One thread that runs through the narrative is despite the fact that most people don’t love their work, there’s some aspect to the actual job that makes it meaningful to them, even if it’s just to make enough money to support their family and to give their children a chance to avoid ending up with a job like theirs. And in a time in our nation’s history where income inequality is so bad that working a full time job can still put you well below the poverty line, it’s an important reminder that there’s a reason the working poor are getting pissed.

Some of the best musical numbers in the show originate from the crummiest jobs, especially “Millwork” (music and lyrics by James Taylor, who contributed several songs), sung by the talented Tiffany Chen. Chen plays an assembly line worker in a luggage factory in a job that is “goddamned awful boring” so she’s “waiting on a daydream to me through the morning”. It’s a sad reminder of what some folks have to do for work in order make ends meet (or not) but the song is more beautiful than depressing. There are a number of comical numbers as well, like “Brother Trucker” (about the life of a truck driver) and “It’s An Art” (about waitressing), but the happiest profession represented in the show is that of the stone mason, to whom “quitting time is a big surprise” because he so enjoys his work of building homes, which he knows will “stand for 100 years”. There are are other positive segments as well, as Phil Tayler portrays a firefighter who has the satisfaction of knowing that his actions have a direct and positive outcome on the lives of others. The most touching moment in the show however, is not about working but what happens when some people retire and the loneliness and boredom set in. Christopher Chew is a standout as he transforms himself into an elderly man talking about his routine now that he is a retiree, and it reminds us that work serves many more functions than just a paycheck, like the socialization and a sense of purpose it gives us.

The songs from the show are well-crafted, and while you won’t be leaving the theater humming and dancing to any them, they’re passionately delivered by the performers and the choreography is simple but effective. Director Ilyse Robbins does a nice job weaving all of the vignettes together, and while not exactly seamless, the action flows nicely throughout the 100 minute (no intermission) show. She also uses the Lyric Stage’s space (three full viewing sides) to great advantage to simulate everything from office cubicles to steel girders of a building under construction. The performances are uniformly solid and the cast, like working class America, is diverse. This is not your typical musical, but it’s a real fine take, and judging by the sold out audience reaction on a Sunday afternoon, it’s a crowd pleaser as well. For more info, go to: