Theater Review: ‘Working: A Musical’ at Encores Off-Center at City Center

By Jonathan Spira on 29 June 2019
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This summer, City Center’s Encores Off-Center series of revivals first presentation is a rather introspective version of “Working: A Musical,” an updated version of the musical based on Studs Terkel’s highly acclaimed book of interviews of the working man and woman.

First staged at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 1977, the show opened on Broadway in 1978 at the 46th Street Theatre (now called the Richard Rogers Theatre) and starred Patti LuPone and Joe Mantegna among others.

Terkel himself explained his book, entitled “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do” as “a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread – for a sort of life, rather than a Monday-to-Friday sort of dying.” The book looks at the meaning of work for different people in a variety circumstances, and City Center adapted the 1981 musical, updating some of the songs and adding two by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

To celebrate City Center’s 75th year, the landmark theater looked inward at the very people who keep City Center functioning, day in and day out. The star of the theater’s crew is Abdou Sillah, warmly portrayed by Christopher Jackson. Sillah, a Gambian-born New Yorker, is City Center’s “director of fire safety and security,” a line he proudly repeats in his many appearances on stage.

“I am New York City Center’s face,” he informs the audience early on. “Everybody who comes into this building, I have different ways of greeting each of them. So many gestures, … some will dance, I will dance … ”

Other employees include Mr. Sillah’s daughter, Fatou (Tracie Thoms), who checks theatergoers’ bags for unknown items, and Angie White, the head usher portrayed poignantly by Oscar- and Emmy-award winning actress Helen Hunt.  Did you know that City Center used to color code its tickets based on section?  We learn that and more from Ron (David Garrison) and his son Jon (Mateo Ferro), who preside over the box office.

Hunt’s ability to connect with the audience is readily apparent with her portrayal of Rose Hoffman, a dedicated teacher who, after decades in the classroom, struggles with today’s student body, where the teacher must compete with iPhones and social media for a student’s attention. “But manners don’t seem to apply anymore,” she laments in an updated version of Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead’s “Nobody Tells Me How.” “Say quiet down, and they’ll ask you what for,” she tells us. A simple request could spark “insults on Instagram” she points out, something that was impossible to conceive of when she first entered the classroom.

A scene featuring “Millwork,” one of the original songs, places Tracie Thoms in a luggage factory as a steam-press operator while other cast members mime the tasks of factory workers behind her, while her portrayal of a cleaning woman singing “Cleanin’ Women” shows her determination as she promises she is the end of the line and her daughter “will only get on her knees to pray.”

“The Mason” is a hymn to the life of a stoneworker (Christopher Jackson) who builds houses and walls that will remain in place for centuries, while the story of money manager Rex (Javier Muñoz) is eerily reminiscent of characters such as Jordan Belfort, as performed by Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

Encores Off Center continues this summer with “Promenade” and “Road Show.”

THE DETAILS

Working: A Musical
New York City Center
Limited engagement through June 29, 2019
New York City Center
131 W 55th Street
New York, N.Y. 10019
Runtime: one hr. and 15 min.
www.nycitycenter.org

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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