"Working" at Caldwell Theatre: A Musical With Political Relevance
"Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks." — Karl Marx
"I like being able to fire people." — Mitt Romney
Like women's reproductive rights, environmental protection, and healthy eating, the issue of workers' rights is divided along party lines. Democrats are ostensibly pro-labor, while the GOP sees the 99 percent as useful idiots who can be led to vote against their best interests.
Stephen Schwartz's musical Working may not have been a political polemic when it premiered on Broadway in 1977, but in today's polarized climate, anything that takes a sympathetic stance on salt-of-the-earth workers is liable to be read as left-wing indoctrination. Recent script revisions reflect the income inequality of our times: At one point in the Caldwell's revival, which runs through April 1, Barry Tarallo convincingly inhabits a slithery CEO who champions deregulation and praises the invisible hand of the market to correct its wrongs. It's a short but chilling examination of the way the other side thinks, and it's one of the fiery, of-the-moment undercurrents that elevate what is otherwise an imperfect show.
Inspired by Studs Terkel's 1974 nonfiction book of the same name, the concept of Working is this: Six actors portray roughly a dozen workers each, explaining the joys, hardships, and painstaking details of their labor through song and storytelling. We hear from stonemasons and deliverymen, teachers and cleaning women, UPS drivers and call-center employees, all expressing themselves through the Caldwell's impressively minimalist production design. A few desks, rolling chairs, and room dividers function with multiple purposes, with Joseph P. Oshrey's lighting design filling in the particulars. The most lavish element onstage is the video projection system, but its map views of various workers' hometowns feels close to superfluous.
There is no plot tissue connecting the disparate scenes; unlike the much larger Broadway version, the characters here don't have names. This can create a clinical disengagement between the audience and the actors. Because character-building is nonexistent, few of the scenes connect on an emotional level, though several stand out as impressive individual pieces. Kareema Khouri's study of a single mother slogging through a hellish factory job so her children can have a better life is made immensely moving by the performer's gospel-ready vocals. Witty choreography and Laura Hodos' perky exuberance help sell an enjoyable number about a waitress who loves her job.
The entire cast is solid, in fact, with Tarallo traversing between workingmen and empty suits with aplomb and Jim Ballard acting as the production's embodiment of the rugged manual laborer, complete with hardhats, tool belts, and a 5 o'clock shadow. Problems arise when the source material veers out on strange, rambling limbs, leaving its actors hanging on to them as best they can. There is perhaps little Tarallo could have done better to enhance "Joe," a slow and soporific itinerary of an old-timer's daily life. Ballard's "Fathers and Sons" comes off as redundant, covering much of the same territory explored in "Cleanin' Women," a song presented mere minutes before. And a supposedly funny monologue by a psychopathic newsboy, played by the otherwise stellar Michael Focas, is just bizarre and completely out of place. In any play. Anywhere.
But by the time it ends — two or three songs too long — Working swells with patriotic populism, with the six-member company celebrating the kinds of workers we take for granted, the unacknowledged engines of the American experiment. It's a rousing climax to a musical with its fair share of crests and dips, riding a wave of solidarity that sticks it to the 1 percent. Comrades, rejoice.
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