Jay Armstrong Johnson in <i>Working</i>
Jay Armstrong Johnson in Working
(© Richard Termine)
Working, now running at 59E59, opens with soft light on a reel-to-reel tape player spooling crackly audio of journalist Studs Terkel's 1970's interviews with working Americans. Another tape recorder playing a new voice soon appears, followed by another, then another, until the theater is filled with the disembodied voices of working Americans speaking from somewhere in the past, forming an overlapping, messy, interconnected whole.

The production that follows this prelude is similarly jumbled.

The real-life Terkel interviews are the foundation of his landmark book "Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do," upon which the musical is based. But it is a dirty trick to declare Working as being in the words of Terkel's interviewees (with lyrics pointedly noted as being "as faithful as possible to the character's original words"), because how can a reviewer fairly take issue with songs that tell when they should show if they were never the book-writer's to begin with?

Because theater isn't fair. Nor is life, as we're reminded by the stories of the musical's downtrodden worker bees, who toil away in unnamed offices, anonymous factories, and random street corners. It would be unfair to dismiss those stories, told by a versatile and talented cast of six in this production, as they are grounded in the real experiences of real people, and reflect the experiences of even more real people. But the reality is that Working is a revival of a 1978 Broadway musical, and even with two new songs from Tony Award winner Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights), it's dated--and you notice.

The age of the piece matters, as does the loose and problematic use of "past" in this production. As an audience member suspending disbelief, it is difficult to listen the woman folding laundry (Kenita R. Miller) while singing about being "just a housewife" without thinking of "The Mommy Wars" over Ann Romney's years of at-home parenting counting as "work," or even the choice implicit in being able to not hold down a job. It is also hard to listen to a Jewish schoolmarm (Donna Lynne Champlin) complaining about the influx of Hispanic students and thinking, "Wait, is this from the original show, or one of the new songs? When is this supposed to be set?"

The question is not clarified by the appearance of a millennial guy (Nehal Joshi) brandishing an iPhone, who proclaims he works at a newspaper (a newspaper? really?) before launching first into a socialist rant, then a jarring tangent about taking a machine gun to his coworkers. Whoa--what? How did we get here and more importantly: "Why?"

It is a query Working can't quite answer.

If there is one theme in the show, it is that of power, or absence thereof. There is one token meanie boss, but he exists only as a foil to further show how powerless his employees are. As a result, there is no sense of building toward something greater. It is all "working," not "working your way up," and the absence of that ambition or upward mobility anywhere in the show means it is powerless to go anywhere at all.

The resulting parade of weary acceptance in Working's vignettes almost feels like a bait and switch after Stephen Schwartz's bright opener, "All The Livelong Day," which sets the stage for an arc that never comes. Each subsequent song and soliloquy seems to be performed in the key of lugubrious, with vague coulda-been-dreams glimmering out of reach. Only two standout standout scenes--"Millwork" with its Rube Goldberg-esque scenework depicting the company at work in a factory (nice choreography by Josh Rhodes), and "It's An Art," in which a waitress (Champlin) is a diva whirling amongst her tables as if on stage--break away from the doleful, the rueful and the wistful.

On a meta level, it is hard to watch Working and its team of fantastic actors wresting genuine emotional performances (receptionist-nanny-flight-attendant-millworker Marie-France Arcilla is a true standout) and not reflect on their professional experiences. Surely many of the performers on stage have held down some of the show's complained-of jobs before. And yet here they are, living their dreams onstage, even as they portray those who could not.

In this vein, Working reminded me of A Chorus Line--individual stories pulled together to animate the whole, though the ones here are shared with a fraction of the empathy for the characters and their experiences. It also made me think of Cats and Starlight Express, two musicals that also consist largely of strung-together character songs about this cat or that train--and however you might feel about roller-skating trains, I did find myself wishing that earnest, heart-tugging Working could have taken itself a bit less seriously...even just a bit.

Working didn't have to be a happy-go-lucky, foot-tappin' extravaganza of fun. Today is as good a time as ever to examine the uncomfortable realities of wealth distribution and professional fulfillment in America. Instead of this, the musical shoehorns interviews given, and pointedly selected, in the 1970s into a present day production without engaging any of the underlying issues. There's a glimmer of future in the finale, "Something To Point To," a number about how important it is for workers to not be alienated from the fruits of their labors. But when your finale conjures up Karl Marx, you're lagging a few years behind.

Stand down, proletariat. We get it.