Nancy Sasso Janis
OnStage Connecticut Critic / Connecticut Critics Circle
“I Hear America Singing”
Fairfield, CT - Before I review a show that is new to me, I purposefully try not to do too much research on it. I tell myself that this is to preserve the uninformed perspective of someone seeing a work for the first time; sometimes it is simply because I don’t have the time to read carefully every press release I post. Thankfully, opening night of ‘Working’ by the Sacred Heart University Theatre Arts Program marked the first time I thought I was reviewing a play until I walked into the venue.
The upright piano in the corner helped me to notice that the full title on the program I was handed was ‘Working: A Musical.’ It was decidedly a pleasant surprise for this musical theatre lover when I saw that it was based upon the book by Studs Terkel and adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso, with songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda (‘In the Heights,’ ‘Hamilton,’) Mr. Schwartz and James Taylor. I quietly updated my Facebook check in with the word “musical” (before the lights went down, of course) and knew that I was in for a treat.
The hopes, dreams, joys and concerns of the average working American are the focus of this rather unique musical. The everyday lives of these common people are made more compelling with the inspiring score and can easily reach anyone who is or was a worker. Based on Mr. Terkel's best-selling book of interviews with American workers, ‘Working’ paints a touching portrait of the men and women that the world so often takes for granted: the schoolteacher, the waitress, the millworker, the mason, the trucker, the fireman and the housewife, and many more. I liked how one character’s monologue often gently passed off to the next.
Mention was made of the fact that the audience would get a rare glimpse into the backstage workings of the actors and technicians and the show definitely opened with audible cues being called and actors entering from the audience. Without explanation, such devices never appeared again.
The extremely modest set of black welcomed the mostly college-aged audience and there was simply that piano to be masterfully played by music director Leo Carusone. An ensemble cast of a mere eight SHU students quick-changed their way through 25 occupations. The new, revised version of the script that director/choreographer Simone DePaolo used includes updated lyrics, a streamlined book and two new songs, but it all still fit neatly into an hour and twenty minutes without an intermission. (Several occupations and numbers were cut from the first half of the original incarnation.) It was obvious that the students were very well-rehearsed, for they danced together beautifully, sang the choral pieces with conviction and perfect harmony and never missed an entrance.
Tenor Jacob Doble, a freshman in his first show in this venue, came on as a tech support person, a community organizer, and an angry ex-newsroom assistant and sang really well. Chris Faccenda, a SHU junior, covered well the roles of a fast food worker, an elder care worker in scrubs, and a talented stone mason. Allie Imhoff, who is a senior majoring in social work, took on the roles of a perky flight attendant, a receptionist, a millworker and a nanny.
Hannah Jones was a stand out in the roles of an aging schoolteacher, a fundraiser and especially as a waitress. This young actress is a freshman making her Theatre Arts Program debut with this cast and is clearly a bundle of talent that reminded me of the supremely talented WCSU sophomore Jillian Caillouette. Ms. Jones is certainly one to watch for in upcoming productions.
Junior Mackenzie Page easily switched from a manager, to a stay at home mom, to a prostitute and finally a cleaner. Freshman Andrew Patino was strong as a hedge fund manager, a student, and another mason. Nick Patino, who is the current president of the Theatre Arts Program at SHU, appeared as an ironworker, a publicist, and a darling retiree. He was convincing as all three and had a great singing voice. Freshman Justin Weigel was also memorable as a trucker, a UPS driver, and a fireman (and former cop.)
Junior Patrick Robinson served as producer and greeted everyone at the door. Mr. Carusone, the Assistant Director of Theatre at SHU who teaches voice and musical theatre, made sure that every singer sounded their best, either in chorus or while soloing. Opening night had a least one lighting snafu, but in general I was impressed at how well the students are always able to light the brick-walled former chapel. The black set was reminiscent of the last production, but worked for the needs of this piece with the exception of a tiny opening through which actors had to duck and turn sideways to exit. The costumes of sophomore Alexa Kober, designing for the first time at SHU, “popped” against the background.
Nancy Sasso Janis is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and continues to contribute theatre news to local Patch.com sites. Follow her on Twitter @nancysjanis417 and on her Facebook page Connecticut Theater Previews.
Photos by Mark F. Conrad