Auburn’s Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival has just rebranded: it’s now The Rev, which is far easier to say, even if its meaning is unclear. Producing Artistic Director Brett Smock also recently announced next year’s season, which opens on “Rocky” and includes the classic “State Fair,” as well as the moving documentary musical, “Witness Uganda.” He also noted that this summer’s final show, “Loch Ness,” a premiere en route to New York City, promises a combination of “The Lion King” and “Cirque de Soleil.”
Far less spectacle is involved in the current production of “Working: The Musical,” based on Studs Terkel’s 1974 book, “Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do.” Not the pithiest of titles, but it suits the style of Terkel’s famed oral histories, where people held discourse at length about their lives. Whether that adds up to dynamic stage portraits is another matter.
The musical first opened in Chicago in 1977 and had a brief run in New York a year later. Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso wrote the book, with music by Schwartz, Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, James Taylor and Mary Rodgers. All these, minus Rodgers, contributed lyrics, as did Susan Birkenhead. Lin-Manuel Miranda added two songs to a later revision. With so many hands on deck, it’s unsurprising that the musical numbers range from inspiring to forgettable.
But Smock has staged the show ably, making good use of several staircases and a lone ladder. Jen Price Fick’s bare-bones multilevel set offers spaces for individual monologues as well as group numbers. The lighting, by Jose Santiago, is muted, except for the flaring firefighters scene. Tiffany Howard’s costumes effectively evoke the jobs and class of each individual character in this ensemble work. And above the stage, Jeff Theiss’ orchestra provides fine musical support.
Smock uses a nice framing device at the outset: in the pre-show, the 10 actors mill about, some stretching, some rehearsing, while tech crew members continue their jobs. Folding chairs downstage each bear an actor’s name, and we recognize that their “work,” acting itself, is about to begin, as they portray a succession of workers in the U.S. labor force.
These varied occupations Terkel originally gave voice to are mostly still extant—steelworker, teacher, cleaning woman, parking lot attendant, housewife, trucker—though their daily struggles seem far more familiar to us after nearly a half century of television shows and news reports. The production opens slowly, but the monologues become more engaging, particularly when the sketches are longer. And several actors sound too collegiate, as if unfamiliar with manual labor. Eventually some actors use dialects and accents, which, however stereotypical, add more authenticity to their characters.
There’s little here that we don’t already know or understand, however. And though this show reflects the 2012 update and some women workers speak of having to prove themselves in a man’s world, there’s no mention of active sexual harassment on the job, the kind many women encounter. The dialogue itself often seems to come out of an earlier, less knowing, less complicated time.
But some scenes are truly striking, as acted, sung, and staged: Joseph Dellger as the proud mason whose legacy is literally set in stone or the old guy who regrets retiring and tries to fill his hours. Jodie Ann Evans as the millworker in a leather factory, where she and her fellows risk their health and safety. Nikhil Saboo as the mindful immigrant caretaker who steps in when family abandon their own. And in a comic tour de force, Joanne Baum as an irrepressible waitress who loves her job and knows she’s brilliant at it. Compelling as several of the vignettes in “Working” are, they also remind us some other scenes are more ordinary. Regretfully, individual storytelling can’t make up for this low-key musical’s lack of narrative through-line.
“Working,” book by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso; directed and choreographed by Brett Smock. At the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, Auburn, through Sept 21. Tickets at (315) 255-1785 or firstname.lastname@example.org.