Lyric Stage’s “Working” Feels Like A Job

Emily White ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

"Working: The Musical" Cast. Photo Credit: Mark S. Howard.
Working: A Musical Cast. Photo Credit: Mark S. Howard.

Often the greatest theatrical productions can feel like labors of love. Lyric Stage’s production of Working: A Musical definitely feels like a labor, but not always of love.

Given the task of working with a difficult, piecemeal, and relatively dated script, the cast and crew were presented with a challenging show to make relevant. Perhaps unintentionally, the show conveyed the feeling of working a full-time job to the audience – complete with the gamut of precious highs, painful lows, and too much monotony.

Working: A Musical was originally adapted in 1978 from Studs Terkel’s 1974 book, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, a candid collection of interviews and stories of actual workers in various fields. In 2011, the show was revisited by its main composer, Stephen Schwartz, who added some modern elements and new jobs based on more recent interviews. Also added were the contributions of six other composers, leaving the overall score of the show choppy and disconnected. The song “Delivery,” written by Lin Manuel-Miranda, has a distinct Latin flair, while “Joe,” written by Craig Carnelia, feels much more Sondheim-esque, half-sung and half-spoken.

Tiffany Chen, Merle Perkins, Shannon Lee Jones in "Working: The Musical." Photo Credit: Mark S. Howard.
Tiffany Chen, Merle Perkins, Shannon Lee Jones in Working: A Musical. Photo Credit: Mark S. Howard.

In addition, because of the interview nature of the book that inspired the show, the musical consists entirely of monologues and solo songs by too many characters to count, each of the six actors playing a ridiculous amount of roles. The characters hardly interact except to provide backup vocals and/or setting to individual monologues or songs, and the fact that the songs hardly sound the same makes it even more difficult to connect – characters appear for a scene then disappear entirely.

The show suffers heavily from this convoluted and disconnected script and score, which certainly gave the actors a challenge, but that being said, it doesn’t feel like the actors themselves are putting any heart into the show from the get-go. The show is not only depressing because of the disappointments of the characters, but because of a disappointment lack of energy coming from the stage. Not until the show-saving and heartbreaking performance of “Millwork” by Tiffany Chen, playing Woman 1, does thus begin to change- albeit halfway through the night.

After Chen, more optimistic characters, such as the spunky waitress played by Shannon Lee Jones (Woman 3) in “It’s An Art,” begin to appear – and the actors suddenly begin breathing life into their roles, especially when Chen and Cheeyang Ng (Man 2) gave a tear-jerking performance as dedicated and painfully sensitive workers in the caretaking field during “A Very Good Day.”

Phil Tayler with Merle Perkins, Shannon Lee Jones, Tiffany Chen in Working: The Musical. Photo Credit: Mark S. Howard.
Phil Tayler with Merle Perkins, Shannon Lee Jones, Tiffany Chen in Working: A Musical. Photo Credit: Mark S. Howard.

By the show’s peak, the production itself began to exhibit job-like traits. At the beginning of the day, like the beginning of the performance, workers are a bit tired, seeing the rest of the day’s tasks ahead of them. By the middle, things start to come alive, and the actors became incredibly focused on their tasks. The show ends with the song, “Something to Point To,” which exudes the feelings of both satisfaction for producing work but also a feeling of settling for what is perhaps good but not the best. The creative team behind Lyric’s “Working” put forth a valiant effort but were perhaps a bit defeated by the daunting task of an impossible book.

The feelings and themes expressed by the production were certainly relatable, but also definitely did not present the feel-good or even feel-bad play of the year. This “Working” is perhaps a great example a work-in-progress, something with potential that needs to find a new place to go.

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