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Theater Review: "Working" at Keegan Theatre

The 1970s musical about humans and their jobs gets a contemporary update in this still-relevant production.

Photograph by Cameron Whitman.

With close to a dozen men and women standing around and singing about their jobs; Working is like the reality television show of musicals (one of those classier ones on Discovery or the History Channel). And in a newly revised, post-recession Working, things get even more real.

The show, staged with minimal fuss by Keegan Theatre, has a conceit that feels a little like A Chorus Line: It’s based on a series of interviews that author Studs Terkel conducted with people in the ’70s about the highs and lows of their careers. Their stories get strung into a musical revue with snippets of dialogue and songs from a number of composers, from Wicked creator Stephen Schwartz to In the Heights‘ Lin Manuel Miranda, who lends two new songs to the piece based on additional interviews conducted in the late 2000s. The newest incarnation of Working keeps fresh by focusing on topics such as unsung heroes of the home health-care profession and locally familiar jobs such as press secretary. The updates can at times feel a bit ham-fisted; there’s a finance guy straight out of a Ron Paul rally whose major professional goal is to outsmart regulators.

Working is bookended by a pair of forgettable ensemble numbers, but its career-focused soliloquy-esque songs are frequently catchy and sometimes poignant. “The Mason Singer,” sung wistfully by John Loughney, is about a man envious of the content way a stone worker attends to his tasks, knowing he’s achieving longevity with the buildings he constructs (wanting to achieve immortality through career is a theme that runs through Working). The plaintive “Just a Housewife” (suddenly given a “ripped from the headlines” feel due to recent political debates) focuses on women who feel marginalized by those who put down their decision to opt out of the traditional workforce. On the jazzier side of things, there’s the showstopping “It’s an Art,” the statement of a very satisfied and theatrical waitress (Sherry Berg), and the gospel-influenced women’s number “Cleanin’ Women.” Director Shirley Serotsky moves the show along with punchy choreography and rapid transitions. The brief use of reel-to-reel audio (excerpting clips from Terkel’s interviews) feels superfluous, though, particularly as the tapes can sound garbled.

Keegan has assembled several strong singers for Working–such as Priscilla Cuellar, whose powerful pipes are showcased in multiple numbers–as well some sympathetic actors; Mick Tinder gives a pitiable take on lonely retirement as the fading widower Joe. Mike Kozemchak has one of the show’s weaker voices but brings a grounded presence to roles ranging from a Verizon customer service agent to an iron worker, while Jane Petkofsky struggles with the vocal demands of “Nobody Tells Me How,” the song of a teacher, Rose Hoffman, whose tough-love methods are out of date. Hoffman may be out of place in the 21st-century workplace, but decades after it originated, Working still has something to say.

Working runs through May 13 at the Church Street Theatre. Tickets ($35 to 40) are available through Keegan’s website.