Where: Theo Ubique
721 Howard St., Evanston
When: through Jan. 26
(optional dinner $29)
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Working” isn’t quite working anymore despite the best efforts of Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre’s talented six-person cast and the spirited musicians led by music director/keyboardist Jeremy Ramey.
The main problem is that the material itself is showing its age, even though director and choreographer Christopher Chase Carter is using the 2012 update of Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso’s adaptation, based on radio great Studs Terkel’s 1974 oral history, “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.” Additional interviews were conducted in 2007-2008, and Terkel called it “the extraordinary dreams of ordinary people.”
The original musical premiered at the Goodman Theatre in 1977 and went on to Broadway and multiple Tony Award nominations (but no wins) the following year. The version at Theo Ubique, one of several revisions since, is mostly touted for the two songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda (of “Hamilton” fame), which join those by James Taylor, Micki Grant, Craig Carnelia, Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead, as well as Schwartz himself.
Miranda’s contributions start with “Delivery” sung by Man 2 (Stephen Blu Allen) as a fast-food bicycle deliveryman happy to be out of the restaurant, which here is Portillo’s, part of a Chicago spin that also includes a big Howard train station sign as the centerpiece of Nicholas James Schwartz’s scenic design featuring three platforms and lots of open acting space. In one of his many other roles, Allen plays an immigrant elder-care worker in Miranda’s “A Very Good Day,” pairing with Woman 2 (Kiersten Frumkin) as a nanny for a duet that’s one of the evening’s most moving songs.
Frumkin also has two of the other best songs, Carnelia’s “Just at Housewife,” in which she describes the demanding daily routine that no one seems to regard as a real job, and Taylor’s “Millwork,” detailing the drudgery and dangers endured by a felt worker in a luggage factory.
The three women and three men—Cynthia F. Carter (Woman 1), Loretta Rezos (Woman 3), Jared David Michael Grant (Man 1), and Michael Kingston (Man 3) are the others—portray dozens of workers, and I wish that more of them got songs to go along with monologues that are fairly predictable and can become tedious. Hardly “extraordinary” nowadays, their dreams range from making a better life for their children to having something to point to as an accomplishment, a legacy.
While some jobs have been eliminated as obsolete (or almost) – newspaper delivery boy, telephone operator—and a couple, such as a tech support worker, have been added (as have cell phones) to reflect the current century, computers and other indicators of contemporary life are largely ignored.
Instead, the “ordinary people” are mostly blue collar, among them the iron worker and mason, as well as “Brother Trucker” (Grant), “Cleanin’ Women” (Carter), and a waitress (Rezos) who convinces us “It’s an Art” to serve. There’s also a fire fighter (Grant), who says he switched from being a policeman to save people, and a retiree (Kingston), “Joe,” who didn’t know what to do with himself until he created a new routine and started going to look at fires.
One of the areas in which the show is dated is in the attitudes towards women. For starters, the way the male characters talk about them is out of sync in the post #MeToo age. More importantly, any executives depicted are men. None of the women is higher up than an office manager (Frumkin), a flight attendant (Carter), or a teacher (Rezos), whose rant about how much better things were when she started 30-some years ago seems more appropriate for when the show was first produced than for now. Perhaps most disturbing is the juxtaposition of a prostitute (Carter) with a socialite fund raiser (Rezos) suggesting their jobs are much the same.
There’s some leeway in how the soliloquies and songs are ordered, and for the most part Carter has structured the show so that one account flows smoothly into the next. As a director, he keeps his ensemble in fairly perpetual motion, especially in the opening and a few other numbers that make it hard to follow who is where when, partly because the sight lines vary depending on where you are sitting.
My main issue with the direction is the tendency to have the songs crescendo into anthems. This practically ruins “Just a Housewife,” which starts with Frumkin’s sad-soft soprano then booms into a trio for the women. The next-to-last number here, “If I Could Have Been” (Carter), is just baffling: Micki Grant’s song strikes me as a lament about missed opportunities but is presented as peppy and upbeat. (Interestingly, it usually comes between “Millwork” and “The Mason.”)
In terms of design, credit goes to Bob Kuhn for capturing the many professions with relatively few costume changes and accessories.
As has sometimes been the case at Theo Ubique, the musicians—Rafe Bradford (bass), Perry Cowdery (guitar), and Carlos Mendoza (drums), as well as Ramey)—are very good but sometimes seem to be competing with the singers to see who can be louder.
The last time I saw “Working,” in 2011, it was a 100 minutes without an intermission. I think Theo Ubique’s production would be better as a single act too, something that could be easily achieved by trimming some of the monologues. It could also use a few more songs, because they’re the highlight of the show.