Working – A Musical. Review

Working – A Musical. Images Robert Workman

American social commentator, broadcaster and historian Studs Terkel spent his life talking to the working classes and, through his beautifully observed interviews, picked up a Pulitzer for describing “the extraordinary dreams of ordinary people.”

He sells himself short. What he revealed, in probably thousands of hours of recordings, was that ordinary people are extraordinary just by being themselves, doing their routine jobs and living their humdrum lives.

His remarkable legacy was told in a stunning blue collar musical, called Working that shone a spotlight, if only for 90 minutes, on the lives of America’s often invisible working classes.

Working – A Musical (to give its full name) has finally made its European premiere at London’s Southwark Playhouse and it is tremendous.

It is, like director Luke Sheppard’s other smash hit, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights, a dazzling ensemble piece with standout performances from the entire cast, sizzling choreography and a knockout list of musical numbers, penned by some of America’s finest musicians and songwriters.

The pedigree is exceptional. Lin-Manuel Miranda delivers two songs. Others come from Schwartz, multi Grammy Award-winner James Taylor, multi award-winners Craig Carnelia, Mary Rodgers, Susan Birkenhead and award nominated Micki Grant. Nina Faso (Godspell) helped Schwartz with the book.

Listen to the lyrics of every sensational tune. They speak of the lost dreams, hopes and desires of a nation. They’re funny, tragic, perceptive and thought-provoking, written, and sung, from the heart.

Working follows a simple concept where a series of lowly workers talk and sing about their everyday lives. They all had aspirations but, somehow, life got in the way. Each tale is related with raw emotional power and undisguised dignity.

The six principals play a wide spectrum of working class heroes, from construction workers, firemen and office grunts to hustlers, flight attendants, teachers and carers.

Each one is finely and affectionately drawn. We learn their whole lives in just a couple of minutes and with a few lines of brilliantly observed dialogue.

Additionally, and it’s a nice touch, six youngsters, fresh out of the country’s drama schools, get their debut in the show.

This big break is unbelievably important to each of them and they repay the favour, each and every one of them, with phenomenal performances.

These faces of tomorrow – Patrick Coulter, Nicola Espallardo, Izuka Hoyle, Luke Latchman, Huon Mackley and Kerri Norville – will never forget taking their first baby steps in such spectacular style.

The always reliable and gifted character actor, Peter Polycarpou, is first up playing builder Mike who helps construct America’s skyscrapers. He’s grimy but he’s got that working class New York accent absolutely right and his wisecracks make us smile.

“I’m a dying breed, a labourer. You’re doing something no-one else will do – and you get to wear a tool belt!”

As cigar-chomping press agent, Eddie, he admits that his only legacy from a lifetime of promoting others, will be “a room full of press clippings and colitis.”

And he tugs on our heartstrings as newly retired Joe, who is slowly sliding into senility. “The days now go by pretty fast,” he says. “I think of something to do – and then immediately forget to do it.”

Dean Chisnall, who I last saw under tons of green makeup, as the eponymous Shrek, here is the American hero – a fireman who retrained from being a cop because he was sick of the public abuse. But he’s also a money-hungry capitalist, a thrusting young entrepreneur following in his father’s footsteps, and a trucker.

I found myself unconsciously nodding my head to everything Gillian Bevan’s disillusioned teacher had to say.

After more than 40 years at the chalkboard she now finds herself trying to educate classes of 57 who’d rather play computer games, have English as a second language, and have no respect for their tutors.

As a cocktail waitress who serves up a slice of cod philosophy with the whiskey sours and dirty martinis, she’s endearing and funny, at pains to point out that she offers a service but is never servile.

Krysten Cummings finds herself going from well-paid hooker, to anonymous office typist hiding in her cubicle and a stereotypical black domestic while Siubhan Harrison is amusing as a stewardess (“It’s not so glamorous”) and a stay-at-home housewife whose worth is less than zero.

Liam Tamne’s Indian call centre worker will strike a chord and so too will his lowly paid carer who spends his days cleaning up after dementia patients.

Working is astonishing and a remarkably fine achievement. A five-star original, beautifully constructed, superbly conceived, wonderfully played and finely directed tribute to millions of ordinary people.

The show briefly premiered on Broadway in 1978 and was reworked for a 2012 production, but it is totally baffling why we have had to wait up to 40 years for this sensational musical to cross the pond.

It’s unmissable.

Working – A Musical runs at the Southwark Playhouse until July 8.

Review Rating
  • Working - A Musical
5

Summary

Working is astonishing and a remarkably fine achievement. A five-star original, beautifully constructed, superbly conceived, wonderfully played and finely directed tribute to millions of ordinary people.

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