Studs Terkel’s 1974 collection Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, which is exactly what it implies, gave Americans reason to celebrate the everyday working person; the folks who keep the world operating, but about whom heroes’ journeys are not often written or told.
Which is why a musical based on those stories, adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso, felt so refreshing when it debuted a few years later. Many of Terkel’s real people step into the spotlight and sing soliloquies, duets and ensemble pieces, recognizing they won’t be famous but hopefully will be appreciated. By someone.
It turns out to be a good and subversive scheduling choice for the end of an election season — please let it end soon! — when scandal, temperament, cult of personality and leaked audio or email dominates the news cycle.
At Jubilee Theatre, Working: A Musical opens the 36th season, the first full season selected by new Artistic Director William (Bill) Earl Ray. He directs the production, with music direction by Kristin Spires (on keyboards, leading three other instrumentalists) and basic choreography by Ursula Hicks.
Basic is good in this case. Bryan Wofford’s spare set of platforms and columns and Barbara O’Donoghue’s simple costumes remind that this is a show that doesn’t need spectacle and splash, just honesty.
The multiracial cast of Fatima Austin, Jeremy Davis, Eric Devlin, Fernando Hernandez, Oris Phillips Jr., Kyndal Robertson, Deon Q. Sanders, Joshua Sherman and Jenny Tucker plays a variety of working-class folks, doing everything from grocery checkout, construction and trucking to clerical tasks and domestic work.
Schwartz (Godspell, Wicked) also wrote some songs, with help from Craig Carnelia, Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead, with an assist from James Taylor, whose song Millworker has been covered by Bette Midler and Emmylou Harris, among others. It has been updated from the ’70s so the characters can reference email and webcams.
Most of the characterizations rely on heartfelt delivery of spoken monologues, or expression through vocal prowess. In this cast, a few go over the top (Sherman’s overly swishy gay character), and vocals are uneven.
Robertson, Sanders and Tucker are the most consistently strong with their songs, giving something new to each character.
Philips has the knockout, quietly powerful performance with Fathers and Sons, in which he’s a steelworker singing about his primary reason to work as hard as he can, for his children, and learning more about his own relationship with his father.
The characters in Working may not have a book or a painting to show for their work, something tangible to leave for generations. But, to paraphrase the final song Something to Point To, every contribution, no matter how small, is important. It’s an important message for those looking for votes.