Dallas — Grinning like your best friend and waving the next car into the garage, big, burly Ecko Wilson rocks out and sings “Lovin’ Al,” a sly song about his lifelong job parking Kias and Cadillacs, and his proud reputation as a man who can get it parked in one smooth swing of the steering wheel. His fans, a bevy of pretty back-up singers, cheer him on from above, and Al obliges the audience’s applause with a big man shimmy landing in a full-out split. Now that’s dedication.
Wilson’s upbeat performance is just one of nearly 20 song and dance numbers in Working, A Musical, directed with a light hand by Michael Serrecchia at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, who gives soloists room to shine, and in ensemble numbers he crowds the 12-member company onto Rodney Dobbs’ tight, two-level stage design with just room enough to clap hands and shout. Nice work, guys.
The show is adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso from Studs Terkel’s 1974 oral history project, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. The show, first produced in 1978, is a revue-style musical with songs by five composers touching on some 30 working Americans, from waitress to money manager, from trucker to teacher. They tell their stories and sing their songs, from ballads to pop-rock—written by music by Schwartz, Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Mary Rodgers, James Taylor and others, with two new songs added in 2009 by Lin Manuel-Miranda of In the Heights—reminding us how closely Americans define ourselves by our jobs.
Musical director Gary Okeson and a trio of musicians just visible on the second-level wing open the show and accompany the singers as each actor steps stage center. The narrative is loosely linked by a worker remembering a place or a person, as the scene shifts smoothly to the next performer. A big TV projects black and white photo images of workers and scenes, from bars to skyscrapers, in sync with the stories.
The actors are workers too, demonstrating their ability to step in and out of different characters. Some are outstanding. Mary Gilbreath Grim makes us feel the numbing exhaustion of the assembly line in “Millwork,” her voice strong but trembling as she sings of her aching, aging body on the relentlessly moving line. She’s also a wistful stay-at-home mom singing “Just a Housewife,” quietly proud of being “somebody’s mother, somebody’s wife.” In the second act she shows off her resonant voice and first-rate musical comedy gifts as a ruthlessly cheerful, multi-tasking waitress in “It’s an Art,” a funny song by Miranda that compares waiting tables to performing onstage. She loves her job so much she considers tips an insult. Works for me.
Not everybody is so crazy about her job. Natalie King has a terrific mezzo voice, a dynamie smile and huge, expressive eyes, all put to dramatic use in “If I Could’ve Been,” a nostalgic ensemble piece about the direction things might have gone with the right break. She also delivers a soulful rendition of “Cleanin’ Woman,” a bluesy song describing a lifetime of cleaning rooms with her mother and grandmother, back when “the minimum wage was anything you could get.” Now she’s a determined that her daughter won’t follow in her footsteps.
Bryan Lewis, as a longtime iron worker, convincingly combines dramatic monologue and song in “All the Livelong Day,” the opening ensemble number about the dangers and macho moves of men who work 40 stories above ground on the width of an I-beam building skyscrapers. Late in the second act, Lewis appears as the same character grown older, sings a thoughtful song, “Fathers and Son,” recalling how he idolized his dad and wanted to grow up to be an ironworker. Now he hopes his own young son won’t pursue the hard and dangerous job.
Some of the songs are more talky than melodic, and Bradley Campbell is touching as a retired worker trying to stay busy in “Joe." Especially today when so many Americans are out of work or under-employed, Joe’s attempt to convince us he’s still engaged in life are downright wrenching. Campbell builds the narrative from an upbeat, smiling guy meeting up with friends to play poker to a clearly disoriented man, looking for anything to get him out of the house. “I go to fires sometimes,” he says, staring into space.
Jeff Burleson delivers a suddenly dramatic moment as a cop turned fireman, a job he can take pride in because now he saves lives. When he was a cop everybody hated him—and he didn’t like himself much. Ivan Jasso, wiry and tight, is funny and spooky as a psychopathic underling fantasizing about telling off the boss—and maybe knocking him off. Say what?
From an aging schoolteacher (a prim, distraught Jane Willingham) to a jacked-up supermarket checker (a manic Marla Jo Kelly) all the workers are gettin’ it done and making it to the next day. Despite the pain and grousing that surface in the stories, what emerges is a sense of how all feel they contribute something of value to the national good, however tenuous, the theme of the closing ensemble number “Something to Point To.” Some of the songs and monologues are schmaltzy and some are just forgettable, but the cast can take a bow for delivering a rewarding night of theater—worth the wages for a good day's work.