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.”
Wellesley Theatre Project (WTP) will present, Madagascar: A Musical Adventure, Jr. Friday, November 17 at 5pm and 8pm, and Saturday, November 18 and Sunday, November 19 at 2pm and 5pm. All performances will take place at Babson College’s The Sorenson Center, located at 19 Babson College Drive, Wellesley, MA 02482. Tickets are priced $15 for adults and $8 for students and seniors, and may be purchased online in advance, or at the door for $18 for adults and $12 for students and seniors.
Specially based on the smash hit DreamWorks animated motion picture, Madagascar: A Musical Adventure Jr. follows all of your favorite crack-a-lackin’ friends as they escape from their home in New York’s Central Park Zoo and find themselves on an unexpected journey to King Julien’s Madagascar. Join Alex the Lion, Marty the Zebra, Melman the Giraffe, Gloria the hip hip Hippo and, of course, those hilarious, plotting penguins for songs like “I Like to Move It” and “Best Friends” in this musical adventure of a lifetime. Will they make it back home to New York, or will they get eaten by the hungry foosas?
For more information about Madagascar: A Musical Adventure, Jr. or other Wellesley Theatre Project classes and productions, please visit www.wellesleytheatreproject.org or call 781- 235-1550.
Emmy Award-winning actor Tony Shalhoub was in town last night to take part in a theater-in-the-rough performance at Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, in residence at Babson College, at the Sorenson Center for the Arts. Best known for his television work on Monks and Wings, Shalhoub has also appeared on the big screen in Spy Kids, Big Night, Men in Black, Cars, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Somehow he squeezed in the BabsonArts reading of Fear and Misery in the Third Reich even though he is currently starring in The Band’s Visit on Broadway.
The crowd for the sold-out reading, presented without common theatrical elements like sets or costumes, didn’t seem to mind when director Steven Maler came onstage to tell us that Shalhoub had literally just arrived for the 7pm show at 7pm and would therefore need a minute or two to collect himself after the long trip from New York City. Mahler asked us to consider the insane schedule Shalhoub has been keeping and said, “Whatever you do, just love him.”
The cold and rainy weather outside was itself a study in fear and misery, and the theater was warm and comfortable, so everyone just settled in to wait for a couple of minutes. Once the performance began, it was off to a world of 1930s Germany in a series of eighteen playlets, sort of a study of life in German homes as Adolph Hitler and the Nazis came to power. Playwright Bertolt Brecht, who wrote the work while in exile in Denmark, showed a time of betrayal; eavesdropping parlor maids impressed with tall, strong, SA officers; trickery; and political divisions even within households.
The fourteen cast members, seven of them members of Actor’s Equity Association, were placed on an almost bare stage, where they brought the audience to concentration camps; kitchen tables in tenements; factories filled with “satisfied” workers; and to a university science department where PhDs didn’t dare utter the name “Einstein.” Husbands and wives find out unsettling truths that lurk below the surface of their everyday interactions, and parents and children live in a time of strange family power imbalances. A screen behind them showed a black and white historical-looking picture of each setting.
It was a time when gossip could either gain you an advantage or get you killed. If your child’s favorite extracurricular activity was suddenly Hitler Youth, well then it became your favorite extracurricular activity for your child. If you were a farmer, you either secretly hated the government for forcing you to starve your animals or were rather pleased with it for sending you that innocent young girl from the Hitler Youth program for some nice, fresh, country air. So innocent. So young.
But my imagination runs away with me, which is rather the point of this script-in-hand, rough, barely rehearsed sort of performance. It’s sort of an invitation to be as in the moment with the story as the actors are, and it’s a bit of an insider’s look at the process, warts and wonders and all.
There was mostly wonder, and only a few warts mostly in terms of the length of the performance. If the subject matter seems a wart to you, well you can’t say the title doesn’t give fair warning. However, if you went to see actors immersed in their craft, then you were in the right place.
The after party:
Johnny Lee Davenport*
Steven Maler* (Director)
* denotes Actor’s Equity Association member
Victoria Townsend, Assistant Director
Tyler Prendergast, Projection Designer
Jennifer Shubitowski, Rehearsal Assistant
Sarah Vasilevsky, Rehearsal Assistant