Saturday, June 13, 2009

Working it

This review is of necessity short but sweet, because Working, presented by Metro Stage Company at the YMCA Theatre in Central Square, has only one performance to go (tonight). But if you can catch it you really should. And don't bother wondering how Stud Terkel's famous series of interviews could ever have been transformed into a musical - it's really more of a revue than a musical, but the material fits comfortably within the form's current parameters, and the music, from a wide range of contributors led by Stephen Schwartz, may not give Sondheim any competition but can easily hold its own against the likes of Cats or The Producers (the catchiest ditty is probably James Taylor's "Traffic Jam").

So just go, because Working turns out to be genuinely smart and affecting, and though this version is a bit low-tech, and is flecked, it's true, with a few acting and vocal gaps, it's nevertheless startling in the generally high standard held by a huge ensemble (some two dozen featured performers), who have been directed with subtlety and insight by James Tallach (the bouncy musical direction is by Adam MacDonald). And this consistent level of craft, like a quiet tide, somehow lifts the piece to real heights of emotional power.

Terkel, of course, is in many ways a sentimentalist - nobody in Working is lazy or backstabbing or conniving, and the intersections of class and race are only treated lightly (but more honestly than you'd find on most local stages). Still, his sentiments are universal ones, and may have never been treated in a musical before. There's no romance, for example, in Working - although plenty of comedy - unless you count the love of work for its own sake (which many of Terkel's interviewee's genuinely share).

And yes, the exploitive, even inhuman conditions of many workplaces make their inevitable appearance ("Millwork"), but generally Working is hearty and optimistic about endeavor, and about the meaning it gives life - as well as the sadness that sets in when that meaning is gone ("Retired"). There are songs about first jobs ("Neat to Be a Newsboy"), menial jobs ("He Builds a House") and even hand jobs ("What I Could Have Been"). And there's actually a song about the joys of bad waitressing ("It's an Art"), hilariously put over by Meredith Stypinski. Plus there are stand-out acting cameos from David DaCosta, Rebecca Shor, Ann Carpenter, Kendra Alati, Rachael Fisher-Parkman, Dinah Steward, Cliff Blake, Joshua Smith and Lucas Lloyd (as well as strong support from the entire ensemble). Where have all these people been all my life? Banging around either the community theatre scene, or the edge of the professional one, it turns out - two worlds which Metro Stage seems to seamlessly bridge.

But the show is at its deepest in its honest exposure of what it means to work when that work has been shorn of glamour, or social esteem, or even the satisfaction that comes from "making a difference" - when it's just work, done to get by, or, most poignantly, to provide for the next generation (I defy you to remain dry-eyed during "Cleaning Women" or "Fathers and Sons"). It's at moments like these that Working suddenly seems better than any musical I've seen this season - certainly better than Pirates!, but also better than Jerry Springer or Grey Gardens or Cabaret, all done at bigger and better-funded companies. In the end, the big news about Working is that with it, Metro Stage Company makes its claim to joining the local mid-sized theatrical tier, alongside the likes of SpeakEasy, the New Rep and the Lyric Stage. There's some new competition in town, boys (and girls)! Next up for this crew is Sweeney Todd (!) - which would sound like folly if you hadn't seen how they worked Working.

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