By Barry Reszel
Bottom line first—Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre’s production of Stephen Schwartz’s quintessential Chicago musical Working is of the caliber that friends of the fabulous Evanston storefront have come to expect.
This well-paced staging directed by Christopher Chase Carter features a cast of six hungry, non-Equity talents working their way through Chicago journalist Studs Terkel‘s transcriptions. The show includes songs from a bevvy of composers/lyricists including Schwartz, Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Mary Rodgers, Susan Birkenhead and James Taylor along with two recent additions to the work from Hamilton god Lin-Manuel Miranda. Ever-talented Music Director Jeremy Ramey and musicians Rafe Bradford (bass), Perry Cowdery (guitar) and Carlos Mendoza (drums) handle the variety of musical styles with entertaining professionalism. It’s always a joy to watch Ramey’s conducting enthusiasm, and the exposed placement of the band for this show is an added plus.
Working has certainly traveled a curious route to Theo Ubique since its pre-Broadway premiere at the Goodman Theatre in 1977. Six 1978 Tony noms for the Patti Lupone-led show and continual productions and updates dot its 40-plus year history. All are based on Terkel’s 1974 book, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, featuring interviews with people from a variety of vocations and occupations. The last professional Chicago production was in 2011 starring Gene Weygandt, Barbara Robertson, Emjoy Gavino, E. Faye Butler, Michael Mahler and Gabriel Ruiz. Working‘s latest update came in 2012 with songs added by Miranda, which are included in this Theo production. A synopsis and production history of this musical may be read here.
This purposefully disjointed conglomeration of songs and monologues with scant dialogue focuses on the various work of Americans. It’s a unique theatrical experience of humor and depth, wrapped a number of touching ballads and up-tempo songs, any one of which could stand alone in a cabaret setting.
In many ways, Working is the perfect selection to fulfill Theo Ubique’s unwritten mission to expose unknown talent or further actors whose careers deserve greater exposure on professional stages. That’s because each gets his or her moments to shine. And indeed, each does.
This cast features varied-age veterans from a plethora of Chicagoland shows. Libertyville native Kiersten Frumkin as “Woman 2” gets the production’s best songs. Taylor’s “Millwork” about a hardened textile worker and the yearning (if dated) “Just a Housewife” are truly lovely. So, too, is her duet with the accomplished Stephen Blu Allen in Miranda’s “A Very Good Day,” as the two play caregivers, she for a young child and he for an elderly man. Blu is also terrific in Miranda’s other addition to she show, “Delivery.”
As retiree “Joe,” a musical monologue by Carnelia, Michael Kingston is near perfection, moving between memories of his past and his life today, chasing fires and hoping his daughter might call. He also shines in Schwartz’s “Fathers and Sons.” Wonderful Cynthia F. Carter slays the gospel-y “Cleaning Women” with heartfelt determination and leads the anthem “If I could Have Been” with her glorious belt.
Jared David Michael Grant wonderfully opens act two with “The Mason,” illustrating vocation over occupation. He also joins with Kingston and Allan in the rousing “Brother Trucker.” And Loretta Rezos is touching as a veteran third grade schoolteacher in the dated “Nobody Tells Me How” and as the diner waitress with a flair for the dramatic in “It’s an Art.”
If there’s a nit, it’s only with some of the choices made in blending the show’s various iterations while coming up with this unique production. Kudos for including the two new Miranda songs. But it’s a bit head scratching to leave in the monologue about the misogynistic UPS guy and the (albeit lovely) song about an old teacher retiring in the 1970s while taking out Taylor’s “Un Mejor Dia Vendra” about migrant farm workers or the relatively timeless “Lovin’ Al” that could be knocked out of the park by Allen or Grant.
That said, this is yet another high-quality, thoughtful production by, perhaps, the best storefront theatre in all of Chicagoland. There is no reason the place shouldn’t be packed for every performance.
Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre presents “Working” through January 26 at 721 Howard Street, Evanston. More information and tickets are available here.