Monday, January 06, 2014

A Production That Works At All Levels - Review of "Working" at the Lyric Theatre Company of Boston

CAST: Tiffany Chen, Christopher Chew, Shannon Lee Jones,
Cheeyang Ng, Merle Perkins, Phil Tayler

Photo: Mark S. Howard

Let me begin by simply stating that the current production of "Working" that is running at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston through February 1 works at every level - it WORKS!.  It is a lovingly assembled ensemble piece that tells multiple stories in ways that envelop and move the audience.

Let me offer a metaphor for how I experienced this show.  I see the product that is offered on the Lyric stage as the end of a long assembly line.  Many individuals have their fingerprints on the the finished product that emerges.  The assembly line can be traced all the way back to the Chicago of forty years ago when Studs Terkel published his ground-breaking opus "Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do."  In this book, Terkel shared with his readers the results of interviews he had conducted with men and women from dozens of professions and jobs.  Terkel emerged as an eloquent philosopher and apologist for the heretofore largely invisible working class.  A few years later, the assembly line rolled on as Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso were inspired to adapt Terkel's work into a musical, incorporating a variety of musical styles and voices to represent the diversity of the workers whose stories they chose to tell.  Joining Schwartz in writing songs for the show were James Taylor, Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead.  Through the years, as the American workplace has evolved and new jobs have been created, the musical has been adapted to reflect the new reality.   The version being presented at the Lyric, under the insightful and inspired direction of Ilyse Robbins, dates from 2011 and includes new additional songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda.  Adding finishing touches near the end of the assembly line are an amazing ensemble cast of three men and three women, Musical Director Jonathan Goldberg, Set Designer Anne Sherer, Costume Designer Rafael Jaen and Lighting Designer John Malinowski.  The final product that emerges from this long assembly line is both a tool and a work of art that lands in the lap of the audience members.  As a tool, it is a narrative spotlight that illuminates and makes visible the lives of working women and men who in our daily lives are largely invisible and anonymous.

The play, told mostly through song and brief commentary, uses the six actors to portray roles along a broad spectrum of workers - cleaning lady, community organizer elder care worker, ex-newsroom assistant, fast food worker, fireman, flight attendant, fundraiser, hedge fund manager, housewife, interstate trucker, ironworker, millworker, nanny, project manager, prostitute,  publicist, receptionist, retiree, school teacher, stone mason, student, tech support, UPS delivery man and waitress.

The multi-ethnic and multi-generational cast wonderfully reflects the diversity of the work force whose members they portray.  Each actor has at least one moment that stands out as a highlight of the show.

Tiffany Chen is very believable as an exasperated flight attendant who just wanted to get out of Kankakee to experience the broader world.  She is very effective, as well, as the Nanny in the deeply moving song "A Very Good Day."

Christopher Chew creates many memorable characters, but I can only highlight a couple of them here.  His retiree, Alzheimer's patient in "A Very Good Day" is astonishing.  His rendition of "Fathers and Sons" is the emotional heart of this piece.

Shannon Lee Jones is a school teacher whose career spans forty years of dramatic changes in culture and teaching techniques.  As a waitress, she serves up a presentation of "It's An Art" that is almost a show-stopper and deserves a generous tip!
 
Cheeyang Ng shows protean versatility as a fast food worker, stone mason, deranged unemployed worker, and a tech support worker whose thick sub-continent accent is deliberately almost incomprehensible.  His "The Mason," sung with Phil Tayler, is a surprisingly gentle and evocative ballad of an artisan who takes great pride in his workmanship.


Merle Perkins moves from the role of housewife to prostitute to cleaning lady while all the while illuminating the common thread of humanity among these hard-working women.  Her song, "Cleanin' Women," sung with the Ms. Chen and Ms. Jones, is a highlight of the show.

Phil Tayler creates a very credible long-haul trucker, as well as a down-to-earth fireman who takes pride in his work.  In the previously mentioned song "The Mason," his choice of gentle vocal technique contrasts eloquently with the hardness and heaviness of the song's subject matter.

Ms. Robbins has brilliantly blocked the actors in the various tableaux that highlight both their connectedness with one another and their sometime isolation.  In the the mesmerizing song "A Very Good Day," she has placed the old man and his caretaker on the base stage level - stage left, and the Nanny at an upper level -stage right.  The two characters represent caretakers at both ends of life's journey.  Everything else that happens in the play takes place between these two poles.

Allow me to share one final comment.  The guest who accompanied me to this performance has seen quite a few plays.  He indicated that he found himself more moved by this play than by any other.  He then asked me: "How long is it playing?  I want to come back and experience it again."

I encourage you to "Work" your calendar so that you too can experience the wonder of this worthy and memorable production of "Working."

Enjoy!

Al


Working
From the book by Studs Terkel.  Adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso. With additional contributions by Gordon Greenberg. Songs by Craig Carnella, Micki Grant, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead, Stephen Schwartz, James Taylor.
Directed & Choreographed by Ilyse Robbins
Music Direction by Jonathan Goldberg
Running time: Approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.
Box Office: 617-585-5678 | boxoffice@lyricstage.com
Working contains adult language and some descriptions of adult situations.  Recommended for high school age and above.
From the everyday lives of “ordinary” working people comes a musical that is anything BUT ordinary! Adapted by Stephen Schwartz (Pippin, Godspell, Wicked) from Studs Terkel’s magnificent oral history, Working reveals the hopes, dreams, joys, and concerns of the average working American by following them through one 24-hour workday. Schwartz wrote the songs along with James Taylor, Lin-Manuel Miranda, (In the Heights) and others, creating an inspired eclectic, tuneful, moving, and uplifting score.
Working’s celebration of even the most seemingly marginal contributions as intrinsic elements of nation-building gives it stirring resonance.” -- NY Times

Lyric Stage Website

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