Fittingly, Boiler Room Theatre's production of Working represents a triumph of labor. It is, in fact, the Franklin company's 52nd mainstage show, dating back to its humble beginnings in 2001. That longevity (in upstart theater-company terms) says a lot about the virtue of keeping one's nose to the grindstone, especially in the fickle world of commercial theater.
In tune with the new offering's theme—hardworking Americans—it seems apropos that BRT's guiding artistic light, Jamey Green, put in some overtime as both the show's director and musical director. The cast of 10 logs plenty of double-shift duty as well, singing and acting their way to success in what is certainly a different kind of stage piece.
Working is based on Studs Terkel's 1974 nonfiction best seller, which gathered personal testimony from hundreds of people employed in jobs of every kind. Terkel's aim was primarily journalistic—what do Americans do to pay the bills?—but his book's spiritual thrust attempted to grapple with his subjects' dream alternatives, given the dead-end or less glamorous work situations that consume so much of their time.
Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin, Wicked) is mainly responsible for the stage adaptation, and he's a major contributor to the show's hodgepodge score, which also includes contributions from diverse others (among them pop icon James Taylor). But unlike many musicals, Working's musical component comes off almost as an afterthought. Recognizable popular styles are exploited effectively, and the lyrics are usually capably written, but it's the book that unifies and drives the show forward—often engagingly and sometimes quite movingly.
Unlike Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed (both book and play), Terkel's raw material is not simply about underclass employment and the drudgery and unfairness of it all. The Working world includes bricklayers who take pride in their craft, housewives who long to be recognized, UPS employees who deal creatively with the variety of people (and dogs) they meet, hookers who see themselves as players in a market economy, and construction workers who revel in the gunslinger mind-set required to help build a skyscraper. Cubicle workers with "Satan" bosses are in the mix here, too, as are fund raisers, teachers, grocery checkers, retirees and others.
For all their generally, uh, workmanlike impact, the 18 songs feature some standouts. Among them are "Traffic Jam," a clever paean to commuter culture; "Lovin' Al," a swinging jazz tune crooned by a parking attendant; "Brother Trucker," a humorously staged tribute to the OTR crowd; "It's an Art," a harmonically off-kilter waltz about waitressing (with Green serving up some surprising but cool piano flourishes); and the agreeable gospel pop of "Cleanin' Women."
More serious ideas are addressed in "Millwork," whose litany of endless routine and repetitive-motion injuries will surely make white-collar types rejoice for the less physically demanding work they've got; and the climactic tune, "Fathers and Sons," with its poignant examination of the male work legacy that renders the hard message, "Daddies make mistakes."
Besides singing competently, the BRT actors nicely balance their confessional speeches with more prosaic or lighthearted reflections on careers and jobs. Even in a show that depends so much on teamwork, both physically and thematically, some of the players distinguish themselves as executive material, including Will Sevier, Bruce Bennett, Laura Thomas, Lauri Bright and Cari McHugh.
Although its structure is more integrated than episodic, which is unusual for a revue, Working isn't really what you'd term "offbeat." What seems freshest about the play is its subtle delivery. Instead of exiting the theater humming a favorite song, you might leave considering the arc of your own life and the choices you've made.
Not quite fancy-free
Circle Players' big summer musical is Footloose, a challenging choice upon which to unleash a large cast of (mostly) youthful players with (wildly) varying skills and experience. Director Russell Grant generally holds things together, spackling enthusiasm over the gaps in Dean Pitchford's corny, unlikely stage musical (adapted from his corny, unlikely 1984 screenplay). Pitchford pitches in with Tom Snow on the bulk of the show's nearly 20 songs, with additional musical contributions from noted tunesmiths Eric Carmen, Jim Steinman and Sammy Hagar—not to mention Kenny Loggins, whose hooky title tune remains an earwig that's hard to dislodge.
In getting through the tale of a transplanted teen misfit in a small farming community—where dancing is forbidden by law—we endure a mixed bag of performances from energetic young players clad in jeans, capri pants and cowboy boots, whose characters ultimately grapple with more serious themes of single motherhood, oppressive authority figures and death.
Deonte Warren has an earnest appeal as the misunderstood Ren McCormack, Cali Moore makes for a fetching reverend's daughter, and Ed Amatrudo is consistently good as her serious-minded father, who eventually sees the error of his hard-hearted ways. Other notable performances include those of Chad Webb, Hannah McGinley and Susan Taylor.
Kate Adams-Johnson's choreography definitely aims to capture the exuberance of the movie's familiar style. Alas, for all their sincere effort, her dancers really aren't up to it. Even pro-level hoofers have to be on their toes to execute Footloose's carefully faked abandon; expecting a chorus line of community players to pull it off credibly may be wishful thinking.
Musical director Thom Garrison leads a six-piece combo efficiently through the score. They deliver a generally crisp sound, but it would've been worth the effort to get some kick-ass guitar work in there. After all, as the song says—sort of—sometimes you gotta cut loose.
The show plays through Aug. 10 at the Looby Theatre.
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