Are people defined by their jobs? They're certainly identified with them – witness the recent burst of attention for Joe the Plumber.
“Jobs aren't big enough for people,” says Amanda McKenny, a project manager (played by Abigail Pagan) in the Davidson Community Players' production of “Working,” the first in the theater company's brand-new space.
She and the 25 other characters in the musical are attempting to describe how what they do influences who they are and how to ensure that one's life makes a difference.
Based on the 1974 book of interviews with American workers by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Studs Terkel, “Working” tells the true stories of a cross-section of American workers as they sing and talk about their jobs, defining not only their daily grind, but their hopes and dreams as well.
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“Working” was adapted by Grammy-winning composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz (“Godspell,” “Wicked”) and Nina Faso with songs by Schwartz and James Taylor, among others. The Broadway production was nominated for five Tony awards in 1978.
The score is an eclectic mix of folk, rock and blues, and the local cast is expertly accompanied by musical director Janet Doles, on piano, and Chas Willimon on guitar. There are some real standout voices, notably Carmen Coulter, in a variety of smaller roles; Nickeya Adams as Maggie Holmes, a cleaning woman; and Kevin Roberge as Tom Patrick, a fireman, and Bill Talcott, a community organizer.
Many of the actors take on multiple roles, and the smooth transitions between characters and scenes are adeptly handled by director Melissa Ohlman-Roberge. The minimal set, by Lisa Altieri, is carpeted tiers with a backdrop of three swiveling panels decorated with black and white photographs of men and women in different professions.
This is the inaugural production for the Davidson Community Players' Armour Street Theatre, a beautifully renovated former church. Audiences are seated in pews – a fitting setting for this theatrical fellowship.
The production took on added poignancy due to Terkel's recent passing. He died Oct. 31 at age 96. In the program notes, Ohlman-Roberge addresses the show's timing. “We could not have anticipated that Terkel would pass away less than a week before our opening; we could not have known that the subject would be so relevant given today's economic downturn.”
The 90-minute show, with one intermission, spotlights different workers discussing their job satisfaction, or lack thereof. Marilyn England, as Rose Hoffman, affectingly portrays a schoolteacher who's frustrated and afraid of the changing times in the song “Nobody Tells Me How.” Anne Lambert, as housewife Kate Rushton, and Lori Tate, as factory worker Grace Clements, are very moving in their solo numbers.
Comic relief comes from the happy-go-lucky Babe Secoli, a supermarket checker, played and sung with a light touch by Heather Love in “I'm Just Movin',” and Lary Ligo as Conrad Swibel, a UPS delivery man who relishes the element of surprise.
Group numbers, such as the opener, “All the Livelong Day” and the show's closing number, “Something to Point To” are the most affecting, as the voices of this large cast blend in stirring harmony.
“Working” paints a vivid portrait of people the world so often takes for granted.