Stages

Review: Theo Ubique’s Working Is a Musical Homage to the “Extraordinary Dreams of Ordinary People”

The ensemble in Working. Photo by Austin Oie Photography.

Working transforms Studs Terkel’s iconic 1974 book of interviews with American workers of all stripes into a musical revue that pays homage to the value of work and the pride we take in it. Throughout the show, we hear an ironworker, an organizer, a trucker, a waitress, a teacher, a hotel cleaner and a mom explain how their work made a difference. The revue brings the theme home at the end with the final number, “Something to Point To.”

Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre stages this two-hour musical charmer, adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso, with additional contributions by Gordon Greenberg. Christopher Chase Carter is director and choreographer with music direction of the four-piece band by Jeremy Ramey, using orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire, renowned for his work on Hamilton. The musical, originally produced in 1978, was updated in 2012 and features most of the original songs by Schwartz, James Taylor; Mary Rodgers, Craig Carnelia and Micki Grant plus two new ones by Lin-Manual Miranda. Additional interviews were done in 2007-08 to update the types of jobs performed by these ordinary Americans. The play shows its age in a few places, in terminology and technology, but it’s overall a moving and entertaining piece of theater. The style of Working is a bit rough around the edges, ideal for staging in an intimate cabaret setting.

Six actors, all strong vocalists, perform dozens of roles with versatility and nonstop costume changes (kudos to Bob Kuhn for the costumes and their designed-in flexibility). Michael Kingston stands out for his performances as an ironworker, a press agent and old Joe, the story of a retired worker. Kingston’s work as Joe authentically replicates the creaky movements of an aging man. Cynthia F. Carter is moving in her many guises, as a hooker and a receptionist, and especially playing a hotel cleaner determined that her daughter’s future will not be the same. Jared David Michael Grant tells the story of an over-the-road trucker and performs the James Taylor song, “Brother Trucker.” Loretta Rezos uses her fine voice and versatile acting skills as a waitress, a socialite fundraiser, and a third grade teacher, who laments that “Nobody Tells Me How” (music by Mary Rodgers, lyrics by Susan Birkenhead). Kiersten Frumkin plays a project manager, a mom and a factory worker with emotion and warmth. In the latter role, she sings the Taylor song, “Millwork.”

Kingston, Grant and Allen in “Brother Trucker.” Photo by Austin Oie Photography.

Stephen Blu Allen is charming and funny as a business school student dreaming big plans for his future and also as a stonemason taking pride in the homes he builds. He sings the Lin-Manuel Miranda song, “Delivery,” about fast food delivery on a bike. “I can wander out of range / to a future new and strange / but wait, I haven’t told you my favorite part / it’s when they say / ‘keep the change.’”

Drawing from the Terkel interviews, the performers tell the stories of their jobs, the hazards professional and physical, the tools and workplaces, as well as singing one of the 14 musical numbers. The full company opens the show with “All the Livelong Day,” music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (with acknowledgements to Walt Whitman), and closes with “Something to Point To,” music and lyrics by Craig Carnelia.

The performers move all over the venue, on several platforms and around small cabaret tables where audience members are seated. The band, seated under an El-train structure, is directed by Ramey on piano, with Rafe Bradford on bass, Perry Cowdery on guitar and Carlos Mendoza on drums;

Rezos, Frumkin and Carter perform “Just a Housewife.” Photo by Austin Oie Photography.

Working gets its summary in a speech by Allen as a community organizer.

“The problem with history is that it’s written by college professors about great men. But that’s not what history is. History’s a hell of a lot of little people, men and women, just like you and me,  getting together and deciding they want a better life.”

His story is followed by Carter leading the ensemble in a lovely rendition of “If I Could Have Been” (music and lyrics by Micki Grant). “If I could’ve been / what I could’ve been / I could’ve been something….”

Scenic design and technical direction credits go to Nicholas James Schwartz. Lighting is by James Kolditz and sound design by Giselle Castro with sound engineering by Donald J. Meadows. Matthew Zalinski handles props design.

Working continues at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, 721 W. Howard St., Evanston, through January 26. Running time is two hours, including an intermission. Tickets for performances Thursday-Sunday are $42-$57. The theater offers an optional pre-show dinner for $29. More info, including dinner menu and reservations here.

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