The unheard voices of American workers have risen up in song at Wellesley College Theatre’s Working, A Musical, running at the Ruth Nagle Jones Theatre through November 19. The show plays like a collection of short stories, episodic yet joined together by the narrative thread and underlying theme of what it means to work in American. Each vignette, most musical, some not, explore in the worker’s voice what exactly it is they do all day while they’re on job, and what they think of what they do.
First staged in 1977 at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, from there it went on to Broadway at the 46th Street Theatre. It ran there in 1978 for 24 performances and 12 previews. Ever since, it’s been doing the rounds everywhere from regional theaters to high schools. Author Studs Terkel (who won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Good War) brought the workers’ tales to life, and playwrights Nina Faso (one of the creators of Godspell) and Academy Award and Grammy winner Stephen Schwartz put it on stage, tweaking it here and there over the years.
The sold-out show starts out with the cast of eight Wellesley College students on the spare stage designed by Wellesley’s own David Towlun. They’re singing and smiling, looking for all the world like a bunch of cheerful students just there to entertain. Nothing subversive here, people. Just sit back and relax while we entertain you. Then they got into character, and the tone changed from happy trilling to something deeper. An invitation to a view of the real world was then extended to the audience, and there was no guarantee that it would be pretty.
At first a few of the actors rushed their lines, perhaps due to first-act jitters, but the Backstage Boss/Director Nora Hussey must have told them to breathe and slow down, because that didn’t continue. Off we were to the housewife’s home and the health-care worker’s facility, the waitress’ domain and the prostitute’s corner to hear their stories. You can almost hear the directive: “Don’t judge, don’t judge, don’t you dare judge..,” which itself became tiresome especially when it was preached, not practiced. In this show, the Working Class Hero is usually exactly that, while the Hedge Fund Manager is a caricature of himself, and the Socialite is a lightweight who may have just compared her “plight” to that of a homeless woman.
“Brother Trucker” (music and lyrics by James Taylor) was a standout song for me, sung by Briar Banerji, who also did an amazing job as the Mason, one of the few characters in love with his job, saying “All my dreams seems like they got a piece of rock mixed up in ’em.”
The housewife and mom, played by Juliette Bellacosa with resignation and a nod toward the boredom of the gilded cage perhaps struck closest to the Wellesley mom contingent when she said, “I have a lot of work to do, it’s just that sometimes you wish you had something more exciting to talk about at dinner parties.”
At one point the show lurched into sentimental dreck, which I fell for hook, line and sinker, with “A Very Good Day” (music and lyrics by Lin-Maneul Miranda). It was a compare and contrast piece, on one side of the stage a song about a day in the life of an health care worker taking care of an elderly man in a nursing home, and on the other side that of a child care worker with a five-year-old charge. The acting was right on target, the voices beautiful, but as I was jerked into tears, it all reminded me that the young child caring part was long past me and the caring for a frail elder part was here and present. Such is the life of a member of the Sandwich Generation; some of us get a little emotional about it.
What came through the overall performance was the actual experience, in real time, of each worker. Some were immigrants, doing jobs no one else wanted to do. One worker had himself convinced he was a pretty darn good guy, despite all the violence bubbling just below the surface. He seemed unaware that he had let us in on his biggest secrets, indeed seemed not to know himself how close he was to snapping and taking a few people down with him. Another character was a factory worker, played with speech and movements as clipped and methodical as the pace of her repetitive job. Her daily labor seems to have entered her very soul and she knows it saying, “My life has been wasted and I have been a fool to let this manufacturer use my body as a tool.”
Toughest part of writing this review for me: the program. It had TLI (too little information). Which story had Rose in it? Was Frank that old guy? Ok, Chloe played Kate, Grace, and Charlie, but they were in which ones? Which actor was the waitress? She was fantastic, but the program didn’t identify her role.
A lovely part at the end was when the actors quoted Wellesley College workers, whom they had interviewed about their campus jobs. In the background, pianist Jenny Tang accompanied the workers’ words as spoken by the actors with “America the Beautiful,” which was written by Wellesley College alumna Katherine Lee Bates. And then the show was over, and the actors took their final bows and turned back into students so quickly, my head spun. We all walked out together, audience and cast, the former to their cars and home, the latter to their dorm rooms and most likely hours of study ahead of them, and more performances to go.
Adeline du Crest
Director Nora Hussey; Music Director, Jenny Tang; Set Designer/Production Manager, David Towlun; Costume Design, Chelsea Kerl; Lighting Designer, Graham Edmondson; Projection Designer, Jonathan Carr; Sound Designer, George Cooke; Choreographer, Kendra Cui; Stage Manager, Olivia Feldman; Photographer, David Brooks Andrews
Remaining performances, Wellesley College, Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre, Alumnae Hall:
SOLD OUT all performances on Saturday and Sunday
November 17, 18 @ 7PM
November 18, Saturday @ 2PM
General admission $15 and $10 for seniors and students.
To make a reservation Call 781.283.2000
The theatre is handicapped accessible. For disability services, contact Jim Wice at 781.283.2434