Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Austin Oie Photography.
Working is an almost perfect fit for Theo Ubique with their Howard St. Theatre and its intimate space. Based on Studs Terkel’s 1974 collection of interviews with everyday Chicagoans working in various fields (and the 2008 addition of many more interviews in fields that had not existed when Terkel did his fieldwork), this little musical is in parts poignant, in parts funny, in parts poetic, and always entertaining. Director and choreographer Christopher Chase Carter and his cast of six put so much energy and emotion into the play that this production is one of the best I’ve seen of this musical, which has quite a pedigree. Besides Terkel, there is Stephen Schwartz who, along with Nina Faso, adapted the book for the stage. Schwartz also wrote two of the songs, but there are also contributions by several other respected songwriters including James Taylor and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Their disparate styles work together to create a musical mosaic of these characters’ lives, one you won’t easily forget.
The fine cast consists of Chicago stage mainstays Cynthia F. Carter, Jared David Michael Grant, Kiersten Frumkin, Stephen Blu Allen, Loretta Rezos, and Michael Kingston, each of whom plays multiple parts in songs and monologues that explore professions like waitress, builder, teacher, mill worker, nanny, mason, hedge fund manager, office worker, trucker, tech support, cleaning woman, and (in a notable moment) housewife. The actors show us the truth: that everyone, no matter what their profession may be, puts their entire life into it; it becomes the way in which they define who they are. True to this notion, each actor here gets moments in which to shine.
One of the most memorable scenes in the show involves Carter as a third-generation cleaning woman who is absolutely determined that her own child will not follow in her footsteps. Her powerful voice gives this often overlooked worker the kind of dignity she deserves as she performs her essential, invisible job. (She also lends that stellar voice to the song that sums up the wishes of many of the downtrodden: “If I Could Have Been.”) Another powerful number features Allen as a mason building a wall while Grant sings about the inner strength and pride that the man possesses. In a completely different, comical mood, they also share a scene about delivery people. Kingston, who opens the play as a construction worker and sets up one of its central metaphors (that everyone ought to be able to point to something and say, “I did that”), has a remarkable turn as an old retired man who lives his days immersed in memories of what his life once was.
The other two players each have dual highlights among the many roles they portray. Rezos breaks your heart playing a long-time teacher who is discovering that her pedagogical techniques no longer fit in today’s educational world and then shares with the audience the joy of a waitress who revels in the “art” of doing what she does. Frumkin ends the first act with two of the night’s most poignant characters, the housewife and the mill worker. As the former, she relates all of the things that fill her days amid constant apologies that her life doesn’t seem important when compared to those who have paid careers while reminding us of “all the things a housewife does.” And if the life of folding laundry, cooking, cleaning, taking care of kids, etc. feels a bit repetitive to her, it is nothing when juxtaposed with the daily drudgery of her mill worker, who goes through the same dull, enervating forty-second routine hundreds of times each day in the stifling heat of the mill. My muscles ached just watching her (and the rest of the cast as well) miming the motions.
Enough cannot be said about Carter’s work here as director and choreographer. Helping these actors to give life to so many characters, most of whom have only a few moments to establish who they are, as well as managing to keep the staging and movement alive and not repetitive in this small space are no easy feats, and Carter pulls them off brilliantly. His design team (set: Nicholas James Schwartz; lights: James Kolditz; sound: Giselle Castro; costumes: Bob Kuhn; props: Matthew Zalinski) is also excellent. And music director/highly exuberant keyboardist Jeremy Ramey fronts a four-piece band that rocks the small house at times and conveys quiet emotion at others.
Theo Ubique’s Working just simply…well…works. Throughout the two-hour show, we are introduced to a couple dozen Chicagoans who could be any of us, and we are left with a far greater understanding of our fellow travelers in this vast city. Utterly different in tone from the brash Hedwig and the Angry Inch or the romantic Bridges of Madison County that this company also produced in 2019, Working celebrates the things we do and the people who do them. It’s a completely egalitarian musical, treating all of us as stars for a few minutes no matter who we are. It is said that everyone feels like the star of their own life story; this play allows us to celebrate that in ourselves; as we look at the world through all of these different perspectives, we begin to realize that the issues that beset us are universal and that everyone has a story to tell.
Working is a Theo Ubique production now playing at Howard Street Theatre, 721 Howard St, Evanston, IL, until Jan 26. The show runs approximately two hours; there is one intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.