Premiere issue Autumn 2002

Strong casts gives 'Working' a sheen

From the book by Studs Terkel
Adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso
Directed by Sam Woodhouse

San Diego REPertory Theatre
Lyceum Stage Theatre
Horton Plaza, San Diego, Calif.
Through Oct. 20

While Studs Terkel is an American treasure, his oral histories wouldn't seem to readily lend themselves to the stage. Like his other oral histories, "Working" is a collection of ruminations (about their jobs, in this case) from folks across all walks of life.

And yet the adaptation of "Working" by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso translates the book quite well to stage — as a musical, no less. Works so well that it was a big hit on Broadway some years back.

San Diego REP's staging of "Working" is the antithesis of the big Broadway spectacle. The Lyceum Theatre seats hundreds, not thousands, and in this intimacy the songs that Schwartz wrote and commissioned are more revealing, more human than might be possible in a Broadway-scale venue.

Unlike most musicals, the songs in "Working" come from the pens of several composers. In addition to his contributions, Schwartz commissioned songs from James Taylor, Micki Grant and Craig Carnelia. While nearly every song is a soild, polished tune, the best melodies don't appear until the second act, and there were only a couple of songs that stick in your head.

What the songs do provide, though, is a sort of punctuation between the monologues from the different characters talking about their jobs. A firefighter comes out and talks about why he left the police force to become a firefighter, and you need an emotional levee of some sort before moving on to the next character.

Working While the script and songs are good enough for "Working" to be a regular revival in the regional theater circuit, the biggest reason that this production is so likeable, and at times so moving, is the cast assembled by director Sam Woodhouse. They quite simply become the people originally interviewed by Terkel — a waitress, a receptionist, steel worker, an executive. Folks like, well, you and I — the sort of regular people Terkel finds so endlessly fascinating.

Leigh Scarritt is a font of energy, and switches gears seamlessly going from a waitress to a grocery store checker to a prostitute. She repeatedly gets beyond any stereotypes, and fleshes out these women's own words to sculpt a full human being each time.

As a midlevel executive and a cleaning woman, among others, Patrice Degraff-Arenas, brings quiet dignity to each of her characters. Each of these women has faced numerous obstacles and disappointments, yet Degraff-Areans infuses each with strength and grace.

And Jonathan McMurtry may have a found a new home at the REP. A longtime associate artist at The Globe Theatres and veteran of Broadway, McMurtry has been scarce of late at the larger, better-known venue, whose directors seem disinclined to take advantage of his prodigous talents. The REP used him as a dialogue coach for last year's "The Merchant of Venice," and give his performance talents full reign here — McMurtry is the brightest of an outstanding cast, and brings full realism to the men he portrays.

The set by Robin Sanford Roberts is less imaginative than some of her other recent designs — it's a adaptable but bare-bones stage that manages to serve as a couple dozen different working environments. A plain stage a la "Our Town" would have served as well.

The live four-person band drives the music better than any canned version could — especially in a production dedicated to capturing the hopes and dreams of the working stiff.

Review by Jim Trageser. Jim is a writer and editor living in Escondido, Calif.

Autumn 2002 Theater Section | Autumn 2002 Main Page
Current Theater Section | Current Home Page