By Brian Scott Lipton
The trucker. The waitress. The teacher. The customer service specialist. The everyday lives of America’s working class come vividly to life – in monologue and song – in the revised version of “Working,” the 1978 musical based on Studs Terkel’s landmark book, now at New York City Center as the initial offering of its summer Encores! Off Center series.
This vibrant production, directed by Anne Kauffman and featuring an adaptation now credited to Stephen Schwartz, Nina Faso and Gordon Greenberg, includes some up-to-date material (culled in 2007 and 2019) to reflect how we work today, two songs written by Lin-Manuel Miranda for a 2009 production of the show, and previously unseen choreography by Avihal Haham. Admittedly, some of these changes work (pun intended), and some of them don’t.
For example, while it’s truly heartwarming to hear about many of the actual people who work at City Center, from box office personnel to the head of security, their frequent monologues start to overwhelm the show by the end, throwing this already delicate, revue-like piece off-balance. Only one of Miranda’s songs, the poignant “A Very Good Day” (sung wonderfully by Javier Munoz as a male nurse and Andrea Burns as a nanny) is particularly good. (The second tune, “Delivery,” eagerly performed by charming newcomer Mateo Ferro, is surprisingly pedestrian.) Finally, Haham’s modern, sometimes balletic choreography, while well executed by a four-person ensemble, ends up being more distracting than useful.
But these are essentially quibbles, not a reason to stay away. Indeed, when Kauffman simply trusts the show’s material – and, especially, her extraordinary cast – the show shines brightest. Many will be thrilled to find that Helen Hunt, in her first New York stage appearance in decades, brings both a surprisingly good voice and her strong dramatic instincts to Craig Carnelia’s “Just a Housewife,” in which a stay-at-home mother registers both a bit of queasiness at her choice to not have an outside job and a slight resentment that the world doesn’t understand the value of her work, and Susan Birkenhead and Mary Rodgers’ “Nobody Tells Me How,” in which veteran teacher Rose Hoffman confesses her struggles with the changes in her beloved vocation.
Tracie Thoms, a powerful actress and singer, brings great pathos to James Taylor’s extraordinary tale of factory life, “Millwork,” and a nice edge of defiance to Micki Grant’s “Cleanin’ Women”; Christopher Jackson (of “Hamilton” fame) brings his singular presence to the happy-go-lucky car valet in Grant’s “Lovin’ Al” and does an outstanding job narrating the simple story of Carnelia’s “The Mason”; and David Garrison is absolutely superb in his rendition of Carnelia’s unsentimental “Joe,” about a retired man who makes the best of his now workless days and occasionally gets caught up in reveries of his past.
Unsurprisingly, though, the evening’s biggest showstopper belongs to Burns, who lives up to the title of Schwartz’s “It’s an Art,” brilliantly portraying an Italian waitress with a flair for drama who takes enormous pride in her profession. And Munoz practically brings us to tears with a simple yet strong version of Schwartz’s gorgeous “Fathers & Sons.”
But, ultimately, here’s the bottom line about “Working”: If you leave the theater without a renewed appreciation for the people with whom you interact with on a daily basis, whether you realize it or not, your heart has simply been hardened beyond reproach.
Photos: Joan Marcus
Working continues at New York City Center (131 West 55th Street) through June 28. Call 212-582-1212 or visit www.nycitycenter.org for tickets.