‘Working’ is still a musical with much to say

Madison Theatre Guild's six actors show up
‘Working’ is still a musical with much to say
Photo by Brett Williams
Erin McConnell delivers a poignant housewife’s lament in Madison Theatre Guild’s production of “Working.”

You are what you do.

It’s a truism we embrace all too easily in the cradle of capitalism, where our worth is often measured by the size of our annual income and the number of words in our job title.

And it’s been that way for a damned long time, as Madison Theatre Guild’s latest production of “Working” (playing through April 28 at the Bartell Theatre) gracefully reminds us. Nina Faso and Stephen Schwartz’s Tony Award-winning musical is based on a series of interviews the legendary Studs Terkel conducted with working men and women way, way back in — wait for it — 1977.

So while the multiple-role-playing cast of six steps into the boots of mill workers, stonemasons and steel workers, the absence of Uber drivers, social media managers and app developers means there’s not much here that looks like our new economy. The closest thing we get to a truly modern touchstone is Scott Albert Bennett’s jovial hedge fund manager. “There can’t be winners unless there are losers,” he intones languidly, busting a toothy grin. Dude, I think there may be a job waiting for you in the Trump Administration.

That’s not a fatal flaw by any means, because the truths “Working” traffics in — the notion that for some people, nine to five is a means to an end, while for others it’s a matter of survival, a depressing dead end or even an art form — remains universal and timeless. And director Cindy Severt has put together a great six pack of actors to sing and convey them.

The show’s marketing materials make much of the fact that this version of the show is the one updated in 2011 with not one, but two songs from none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda — in case you hadn’t noticed, his name is the one in large boldface type on the program cover. With apologies to “Mr. Hamilton,” however, his contributions (one’s about a fast-food delivery boy, the other about a nanny and a senior-home worker doing the proverbial work that no one wants to do) aren’t quite as poignant as some of the songs in the original score.

Interestingly, the most poignant of all are delivered by actors who aren’t working office gigs. Erin McConnell, who’s usually behind the scenes directing/playing in the orchestra/band on shows like this, gets a welcome chance to step back into the limelight, and she makes the most of it (and then some). Not only does she own the show’s biggest emotional gut punch of a song, “Just a Housewife,” but she also serves up two additional hilariously memorable characters: a saucy stewardess and a roller-skating waitress. McConnell throws herself into each of these roles, both literally and figuratively.

Bennett also does a great job evoking multiple characters, including a retired widower who misses his old working life (in the number “Joe”) and a father who’s coming face to face with difficult truths about careers and family relationships (“Fathers and Sons”). These songs do the best job of reminding us that work always has a human element to it. Other scenes don’t even need songs to hammer their points home, like the vignette that juxtaposes the striking similarities between a street hustler (played by the always awesome Kate Mann) and a socialite fundraiser (Bonnie Balke). As Donna Summer used to say, she works hard for the money.

It’s actually nice to see that the songs haven’t been sanitized for a modern audience. One of the other roles played by Balke, another local actor who’s more frequently behind the scenes as a producer, is an older teacher bemoaning the fact that her classes are now overwhelming made up of multilingual students (“Nobody Tells Me How”). It’s about as un-PC an opinion as you can get, but at least it’s an honest reflection of reality. This is the third time Balke’s appeared in a production of “Working,” and the experience shows.

The set’s pretty bare, relying on images projected on a scrim behind the actors to help set the scenes and amplify the mood. It’s efficient and effective, the kind of thing Bennett’s hedge fund manager could totally get behind. The sound design, at least on opening night, needed to be put on probation and given a work plan. Output from one set of speakers was muffled for the first several songs, obscuring the rapid-fire lyrics of the show’s opening number (“All the Livelong Day”) and getting the proceedings off to a confusing start. At several points during the show, individual actors’ mics popped on and off as well. The cast handled it all gracefully, but sound problems in a musical are never a good business plan. Hopefully the remaining productions can make a needed course correction.

The final ensemble number, “Something to Point To,” still contains the show’s most universal truth, speaking to the deeply human need to know our work has had some kind of visible and lasting impact. That means something very different in an increasingly virtual age, but, as this production gracefully hammers home, it’s as true as it ever was.

Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning coverage of the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.