A scene from the Emerson High School production of Working
A scene from the Emerson High School production of Working
"Welcome to Emerson," said the sign as I drove into this northern New Jersey town. "Home of the Emerson High School baseball team champions 2000, 2001." I wasn't here to see a game, though, but a musical. And as I approached the school, I saw another sign, this one announcing the name of the show: Working! Now, when this musical debuted on Broadway in 1978, it didn't have an exclamation point. But given how well the students did under Bill and Lisa Ullman's direction, they were entitled to add it to the title.

The Ullmans had a smart concept for the show, setting all of the action in a diner. I mean, we all have got to eat, so every one of the 19 characters could stop by for a snack or dinner and ruminate on his or her job in monologue or song. But even if the co-directors hadn't come up with this excellent idea, they would, at first glance, seem to have chosen a winner with Working, because it's one of our most democratic musicals in terms of casting. Everyone gets a chance to shine and no one can really dominate the show.

But, at second glance, the Ullmans were taking a big gamble with Working. I'm not just talking box-office, for an audience can be pardoned for not knowing a show that only managed 25 performances on Broadway. The problem is that Working wouldn't seem to be a logical show for teenagers. These kids are just beginning their lives, and while it's a very short road from the pinch and the punch to the paunch and the pouch and the pension, they don't know that yet. How could youngsters, many of whom have yet to join the work force, understand the frustrations of people who have done menial jobs for much too long? How could they capture the emotions of "If I could've been what I could've been, I could have been something?" when they still have the chance to be whatever they want to be?

And yet, as early as the opening number, when these 19 kids sang "Getting old is nothin' new," the expressions on their faces showed that they had wisdom way beyond their years. I've always wondered how Chekhov, who didn't live past 44, could be so wise in his observations about age and aging; now I have to wonder how these adolescents could do the same. Garineh Gilian, who played the teacher, and Amy Mazzariello, who portrayed the housewife, may have had plenty of role models over the years; but then there were Hanna Hwang as the supermarket checker who complains about varicose veins and Florence Chen as the mill worker who had spent years gluing the insides of suitcases. All four were wonderful at expressing their characters' frustrations. The kid who had the highest hurdle to jump was Mike Frollo. He was enlisted to play senior citizen Joe, the retiree who now realizes that he quit his job too early and feels useless yet tries to smile, rationalize, and make the best of his bad situation. Frollo was genuinely moving, displaying a wisdom far beyond his years.

I greatly admired Ashley Gonzalez as Dolores Dante, who got the best song in the show -- indeed, one of the best theater songs of the last quarter-century -- Stephen Schwartz's "It's an Art," about a waitress who loves her work. Lenora Nemetz was the first to do this, and did it brilliantly. Rita Moreno was wonderful, too, in the 1982 TV version of Working. Give Gonzalez credit for not replicating their renditions, especially on the phrase "Never made a noise" where she tells how she once fell while carrying a tray. What a delightful contrast from the many amateur productions of Hello, Dolly! I've seen where the Vandergelders have merely photocopied Walter Matthau's performance. And speaking of Gonzalez's falling while carrying a tray: She perfectly executed the planned pratfall.

Dylan Henry (right) as a firefighter in Working
Dylan Henry (right) as a firefighter in Working
Jimmy Vonder Linden sang "The Mason" beautifully. There's a part of me that doesn't want to mention this, but a bigger part that does: Vonder Linden has cerebral palsy, uses a wheelchair, and is blind. Four students were entrusted with wheeling him around the stage. I told Bill Ullman how impressed I was that the kid was part of the show, for had he been in my high school, our drama teacher would never have given a thought to using him. "Are you kidding?" Ullman said with a scowl. "We needed his voice. You should have heard what he added to the harmony in 'Moonshine Lullaby' when we did Annie Get Your Gun last year."

Of course, not everyone else came up to this kid's level. Did some of the others hit notes as sour as Judge Turpin's disposition? Sure. Did the student orchestra occasionally play a clam or two? Of course. Did many in the cast need to take a big gulp of air before segueing into the B-section of a song? Naturally. They're just kids. Still, they were on target 90% of the time, and that's an "A" where I went to school.

As soon as the show ended, I grabbed Bill Ullman and insisted that he allow me backstage so I could tell the kids how much I thought they'd achieved. Once I got there, I started by saying, "You kids have no idea how wonderful you were," but then I asked them how many wanted to perform for a living. I had a specific reason for asking: I had to see if Dylan Henry would raise his hand. The sophomore had deftly portrayed a UPS delivery man (the part was originally a gas meter reader) who loves to sneak up on women who've unfastened their bikini tops while sunbathing in their backyards, then yell "Delivery!" so they'll be shocked enough to jump up and expose their breasts. Henry later displayed a pleasant, strong voice when portraying one of the Brother Truckers, and later still was heartbreaking as the Fireman who told us how much saving lives meant to him. Henry was so natural, not at all actor-y, and delivered his material with such inherent honesty that I hoped he was planning to continue in theater. Well, lucky for us: When I asked my question, he was one of the kids who raised hands. I suspect that this review of him will be the first in a long series of raves.

As I drove away from Emerson High, I found myself remembering what Tyler Rumley had said in the show as the Ironworker who ruminated on the pyramids and the Empire State Building: "These things don't just happen." That's true of productions like the one I'd just seen. By the time I again passed the sign trumpeting the championship baseball team, I wished that another could be erected for the Ullmans and the 19 champions who did such a superb job with Working. And let me add my own exclamation point to that!

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]