Writer: Studs Terkel
Adaptors: Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso
Director: Luke Sheppard
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
In the eyes of America’s current President, the triple whammy of globalisation, de-industrialisation and illegal immigration has snuffed out working life in large parts of his country. Therefore, there can be nothing more timely than the reminder of the values of work that comes from Stud Terkel’s interviews with US workers, first published in 1974 and augmented by further interviews in 2007/08.
This is not the sort of material that we would expect to be adapted into a musical, but Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso, with additional contributions by Gordon Greenberg, have done just that. Song contributors range from veteran James Taylor to the new golden boy of musical theatre, Lin-Manuel Miranda. The show was seen Off-Broadway in 2012 and now gets its European premiere here. Turning the Large space at Southwark Playhouse into a factory floor may not have presented too much of a challenge for designer Jean Chan.
Young and old, blue collar and white collar, management and managed, the show cuts across professions, each segment featuring one of six performers portraying an interviewee, many centring on a song. A fast food delivery boy and a builder’s labourer appear and then a teacher for 40 years (Gillian Bevan) laments Nobody Tells Me How in a song by Susan Birkenhead and Mary Rodgers. A trolley dolly (Siubhan Harrison) serves lukewarm coffee, knowing that her plane is two hours away from a crash landing and a truck driver (Dean Chisnall) hits the road singing Taylor’s Brother Trucker. The excellent songs are sung beautifully, Krysten Cummings, Peter Polycarpou and Liam Tamne being the remaining performers.
A frequent problem with verbatim pieces is that the production can easily mock the words of its subjects, but director Luke Sheppard makes sure that we laugh only with the characters whose simple, natural wit shines through. They are given respect and dignity in a production that is filled with heart and energy. The result is an uplifting celebration of the tiny cogs in a massive wheel and of the human spirit. Choreographed by Fabian Aloise, a singing and dancing chorus of six supports the featured performers and Isaac McCullough’s small band provides backing in the varying musical styles.
Without a linking narrative thread, the show risks seeming fragmented, but the adaptors provide cohesion in neat ways, as when a socialite raising money for charity appears alongside a hooker. Pride in work is a consistent theme, brought out most movingly in Craig Camelia’s The Mason and most amusingly when a waitress likens her work to performing on stage in Schwartz’s It’s An Art. The driving force of characters wanting better for their children also recurs many times. In Micki Grant’s Cleanin’ Women, a mother, the fourth generation of cleaners in her family, commits to a different life for her daughter and, in Schwartz’s Father and Sons, a father glows with pride at his son surpassing him.
In a nod to the modern day rust belt, Polycarpou brings tears to the eyes as he goes through his daily routine following redundancy in Miranda’s A Very Good Day, adding to the mix of pathos and humour that are balanced perfectly throughout the show’s 90 minutes. Working could seem so unlikely a musical that maybe it has no right to work, yet somehow it does beautifully.
Runs until 8 July 2017 | Image: Robert Workman