Given recently released data on the growing – and reportedly downplayed – number of unemployed and underemployed Americans in the country today, Studs Terkel’s celebrated 1974 collection of interviews of real people with everyday jobs called Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do unwittingly acquires special resonance as a musical because it can appeal to a wider audience and to a speed-tech generation that rarely slows down to hear “America talking.”
Now everyone can hear – but for only one more weekend – as a large and impressive cast directed by Southampton Cultural Center’s immensely talented artistic head, Michael Disher, sings and dances on stage at the Levitas Center for the Arts. This is a cleverly designed and imaginatively choreographed production that nonetheless remains faithful to Terkel’s narrative take on labor as cultural history. (Disher mounted a production of Working several years ago at Southampton College; updates now are minimal – references to computers and PC curricula, the sight of a Trader Joe’s shopping bag – but enough to generate an involving sense of contemporaneity.)
Terkel (d.2008), whose first name was Louis, took the name “Studs” in admiration of Studs Lonigan, the fictional protagonist of his fellow Chicagoan, the novelist James T. Farrell, and went on to become an American theatrical type – a genial, tough-sounding, down-to-earth raconteur, interviewer and commentator, and a progenitor of oral history, which he called “guerilla journalism.” Originally adapted for the Broadway stage by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Wicked) and Nina Faso in 1978, Working features words and music by Schwartz and by Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, James Taylor (you can tell) and Mary Rodgers, with lyrics also by Susan Birkenhead, Graciela Daniele and Matt Landers.
What Disher has achieved with a devoted, energetic cast of 22 actors of all ages and degrees of theatrical experience is especially apparent in the seamless way the stories unfold – with verbal cues, musical shifts, group rearrangements and dramatic lighting. From the start, tight direction is evident: a spotlight shines on an iron worker wielding a hammer – an iconic image of an American Worker – soon augmented by other work sounds: a bell, scraping, scrubbing. Soon, the entire company has eased onstage for the rousing opening number, Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing,” set to music by Schwartz. This is followed shortly by a bopping boogie-woogie arrangement of Micki Grant’s “Lovin’ Al,” led by Michael Contino.
Characters include, in addition to the iron worker, a parking lot attendant (Contino); a project manager; a corporate executive (whose lovely tenor also delivers a sentimental, perfectly choreographed Schwartz song, “Fathers and Sons”); a school teacher (in command of cynicism and nostalgia in Mary Ellen Roche’s rendition of “Nobody Tells Me How”); a supermarket checker; a migrant worker; a UPS delivery man; a housewife; a call girl; a mill worker (a bored but accepting Vay David pulsing out James Taylor); a stone mason; an interstate trucker (Claude Soffel doing dramatic turns and guitar); a telephone operator; a receptionist; a telephone solicitor, a waitress (Bethany Dellapolla deftly managing humor and grit); an ambivalent retiree (Richard Koerner, nicely juxtaposing sadness and stoicism); a firefighter; a cleaning woman (Pamela Morris belting out the poignant hope that her daughter won’t have to do such work); a salesman and an ex-copy boy.
Other production principals deserve notice and kudos: Bethany Dellapolla for Additional Choreography, Matthew Gibbons and Karen Hochstedler for Musical Direction, Peter Eilenberg for Lighting Design, Michelle Brourman for Dance Music. A fellowship of voices in harmony and unison, delivering enjoyable community theatre. Take a friend, employed or otherwise.
“Working,” Sunday, July 31 at 5 p.m. For ticket information call 631-287-4377 or go to www.southamptonculturalcenter.org. Tickets: $35 ring side table seating, $25 general admission, $20 seniors on Friday at the door only, $12 students under 21 with ID.