January 31, 2007

"Working: The Musical," COM

All work and no play

by Mark Langton
IJ Correspondent

Sitting through the College of Marin’s musical adaptation of “Working,” a plotless collection of songs and soliloquies inspired by the best-selling oral history by Studs Terkel, is a little like a sitting through a marathon Bruce Springsteen concert, only starring the Village People instead of The Boss.

Based on a ser ies of interviews Terkel conducted with typical American working stiffs -- steelworkers, secretaries, firemen and cleaning ladies – the book “Working” sought to reveal the deep textures to be found in ordinary American lives. Terkel took the “lives of quiet desperation” we are told most men lead, and provided a voice for them in “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do” – many voices, in fact, distinctly authentic, American voices – resulting in a first-rate piece of social commentary that taught us much about ourselves.

The problem with this musical is not the book , or the director, -- or the cast , for that matter -- it is the music. While you can see how Terkel’s experiment in social science might lend itself handsomely to the stage, making a musical version out of it is something else entirely. And as ill-conceived and adapted by Stephen Schwartz in 1978, with hodge-podgey contributions to its forgettable folk-rock score by, among others, James Taylor, Mary Rodgers, Craig Carnelia and Micki Grant, it veers from cloying sentimentality to just plain bad.

In addition to four of his own songs, Schwartz included the work of several others, with four by James Taylor (updated here with “Traffic Jam,” a truly great song and the only hummable tune in the lot, with its immortal lyric “…I almost had a heart attack/lookin’ in my rear view mirror/ saw myself the next car back/ lookin’ in my rear view mirror/almost had a heart attack…,” etc.); three by Micki Grant; one by Craig Carnelia; and one with music by Mary (“Once Upon a Mattress”) Rogers and lyrics by Susan (“Triumph of Love) Birkenhead that both would probably rather forget.

There were individual performances that were first rate, however. Lindsay Drummer, as the Housewife, was particularly vulnerable – almost chaste – when singing “Just a Housewife.” She later showed off her range with her smoldering sexuality during the dance number for “Brother Trucker” later in the show (Were there other dancers? Who noticed?).

Randy Nazarian, always a show-stopper in musical comedy (he regularly brings cabaret audiences to their feet in “For Whom the Bridge Tolls,” stretched his muscles a bit with his steel worker role, and made a decent showing of it, considering the maudlin nature of the text. Here, again, is a case of an actor perfectly suited for the broad strokes of musical theater – who isn’t given any. Shirley Nilsen Hall, always a pro, gave a sharp turn as the teacher – lathering nuances.

Director W. Allen Taylor, always a good story teller, simply didn’t have a cohesive story to tell. Just a lot of little ones, that then telegraphed awkward segues. Not his fault. There was nothing wrong with the scenic or lighting design, either: Walter Holden managed to coax interesting sight lines and even grandeur out of scaffolding and faux marble. Patricia Poelen’s costume design was ordinairy -- which is as it should be (though, given the sheer variety of street clothes and uniforms you half-expected the entire ensemble to do three snaps and break into “In the Navy.”) Musical director Carla Zilbersmith and choreographer Sandra Tanner can be forgiven.

At just under 90 minutes, “Working” is enjoyable. But what we are left with are scattershot, enjoyable images, and nothing to ponder as we walk to the car. That’s entertainment, not particularly good theater. Heck, you can entertain yourself on an unemployment line, if your bored enough.

IF YOU GO: Performances are March 11, 12, 18 and 19 at 8 p.m.; March 13 at 7 p.m. and March 20 at 2 p.m. Admission $18 general; $15 students, seniors children and alumni. College of Marin Fine Arts Theatre, 835 College Ave., Kentfield. Call (415) 485-9385.