Review: “Working” at A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) of Connecticut

  • Tara Kennedy, Chief Connecticut Critic, Connecticut Critics Circle

“Working” is one of those theatre-geek cult favorite musicals; truth be told, I didn’t discover it until theatre camp in 1989. Debuting on Broadway in 1978, “Working” is based on Studs Terkel’s 1974 bestselling book of the same title. Louis “Studs” Terkel was a Chicago-based radio show host, oral historian, and a Pulitzer Prize winner, who was interested in capturing the voices of common Americans. In order to write his book, he went around with a giant reel-to-reel tape recorder interviewing people about their jobs. It’s that everyday human element that probably drew Stephen Schwartz to conceive it into a musical. Incorporating songs from different songwriters, such as James Taylor and Mary Rodgers, it was supposed to depict the spirit of the American worker.  Unfortunately, it only ran for 24 performances on the Great White Way but became a staple for local theaters around the country due to its diversity of song styles and opportunities for actors to have a moment in the spotlight.

2011 marked the year when “Working” got an overhaul so that it would be up-to-date with modern jobs and technology. For example, the telephone operator is gone, replaced with the tech support representative. It was also shortened to eighty minutes to accommodate the shorter attention span of your average theatergoer. It also got two new songs, penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which breathed new life into this old favorite.

Director (and ACT’s artistic director) Daniel C. Levine got permission from Schwartz to revise the piece, incorporating local people in video vignettes, highlighting the work that they do in the Ridgefield community. Instead of Terkel with his tape recorder, Levine went out with digital video recorder, capturing these folks at work with voiceovers describing how they felt about their jobs. I liked how Levine went back to the origins of the original through interviews. There was some guidance in the interviews, as certain transitions were needed places in the script, but that didn’t take anything away from the show. 

While I appreciated the local angle, it’s the six actors that provide the heart of this show. They bring fierce energy and fantastic voices to this production. The songs sound fresh and alive, thanks to music direction by Dan Pardo. “I Hear America Singing” (one of my favorites from the show) sounded full and rousing. My only issue was the portrayal of some of the older characters by the younger performers: With a cast of six needing to portray a variety of ages, characters that are older – like Joe, the retired man – come off more like caricature, unfortunately.

The simple set – a metal, moveable bridge with two movable staircases– made for a versatile backdrop, creating everything from the interstate trucker’s long-haul rig to the operating floor in a suitcase factory. The turntable stage was a great source of movement for elements like the delivery bike. Lighting was good as well, especially during the “Millwork” scene with its red light and dark shadows (scenic and lighting design by Jack Mehler).

Cast and Credits, Theater Information

“Working” at A Contemporary Theatre of Connecticut in Ridgefield, CT. Running through March 10th.  Run time: 80 minutes. From the book by Studs Terkel. Adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso with additional contributions by Gordon Greenburg and Daniel C. Levine. Songs by Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead, Stephen Schwartz, and James Taylor.

Directed by Daniel C. Levine. Starring Brad Greer, Cooper Grodin, André Jordan, Monica Ramirez, Zuri Washington, and Laura Woyasz.