Work ethic pays off for Bristol Riverside with updated musical | Theater
“Working: A Musical” has been re-worked so many times since its Broadway debut in 1978, it’s spent little time on the unemployment line.
Indeed, revising it has seemingly been a part-time job for composer Stephen Schwartz, whose musical muse here is the menial and the mundane as he mines the workplace for what makes it ticktok to the tune of clocking in/clocking out.
“Working” is now playing through Nov. 20 at the Bristol Riverside Theatre.
It’s all been such a labor of love for the versatile Schwartz, whose big Broadway payoffs in the past have been “Godspell,” “Pippin” and “Wicked,” with their focus on the mystical and the magical.
“Working” works in a more down-to-earth world, where humdrum jobs are heralded by hummable songs assayed by a panoply of tunesmiths inspired by Stud Terkel’s 1974 non-fiction book.
Not that some of this musical’s heroes don’t sport their own halos and heavenly attributes akin to the more ethereal characters in Schwartz’s biggest hits, in “Godspell,” for instance; here the world is a workplace wielding few supreme beings as bosses and even fewer omniscient office managers.
But that’s the delight of a musical taking a coffee break from traditional form, using a book of workers’ oral histories studded with everyday stories as a source to sing their praises.
Not that its pay grade pays off in every song or setup. There are problems aplenty during the musical’s moribund first act, with some scenes less than stimulating. However, the second act got back up on its feet and connected poignantly and powerfully with numbers that offered heart amid the hard work.
Certainly, composer Schwartz has a feel for “Fathers and Sons,” reportedly basing this sensitive salute as a paean to his own papa, with lyrics also limning the heart-hugs he has for his own son, Scott, a theater director who has collaborated with his dad in the past.
As part of the show’s revision, two songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda were added in 2009; the revolutionary songwriter provides a burr to the sides of those who discount the contribution of immigrant workers to this country with his “A Very Good Day,” a very good ode indeed to those neglected elder-care workers whose sensitive souls are reflected in the tender touches of Miranda’s mood-enhancing music.
And “It’s an Art,” also by Schwartz, is a wowza of an artful nod to waitresses, served up by Doylestown’s Jenny Lee Stern, whose overcharged waitress in the number is an artful amalgam of every overly intrusive waitress ever encountered.
But then Stern, a dynamic talent well-known to both Bristol and Broadway fans, seduced and sassed with every turn she took; her sheet-folding, basket case who was “Just a Housewife” was just superb, as she did the laundry while airing the dirty linen of a house-pecked woman lost in life’s pecking order because “All I am is someone’s mother/All I am is someone’s wife/All of which seems unimportant/All it is is/Just my life.”
But she wasn’t alone making it all work onstage; a chorus line of illustrious performers — Demetria Joyce Bailey, Philip Chaffin, Tamar Greene, Laura Giknis and Kevin Toniazzo-Naughton — impressed immensely, imbuing their songs with insight and, on occasion, intrigue, with voices atingle with the tension/occasional fulfillment that accompanies each paycheck.
Keith Baker, the BRT artistic director, also directed this so-beyond-workmanlike production, abetted by set designer Andrew Deppen, who turned cubicles into Cubist fantasies.
At the core of it all is Schwartz, who has been working on the real road to musical revelations and transformations since he was a child, using song as a soulful serenade, giving voice to the human heart. As the composer himself noted in “Defying Gravity,” the 2008 biography penned by Carol de Giere, he audaciously was asking audiences to gain empathy not just entertainment when they envisioned the characters in “Working”: “I wanted the next experience you had with a working person after leaving the theater to be transformed by your experience of seeing the show.”
Whether he succeeds is questionable, but one thing is for certain:
Works for me.