Consecutive scenes that begin the second act of “Working,” the musical adaptation of Studs Terkel’s acclaimed book from the 1970s, now at the Bristol Riverside Theater, make you think you are seeing a show vastly different, and much improved, from the first act.
The reason is tone and vibrance. The lyrics in one song, which features a mason extolling the durability of his work and the joy he gets from seeing homes he helped to build, contrasts markedly with the bordering-on-mundane recitations characters in other professions use to tell about their jobs and workplaces.
The mason’s song, aptly called “The Mason,” written by Craig Carnelia and sung with conviction by Philip Chaffin, has imagery and conveys personal satisfaction in a way that delights as much as it pleases. It might be the only number in “Working” that matches theater and sincerity so thoroughly.
Because “Working” is certainly sincere. Each character speaks plaintively and with a core of radiating truth about his or her work. The snag is all that radiation yields no resonance. Most of “Working” was written or composed in 1978 and has the direct, matter-of-fact style of that time. Terkel’s words, in his journalistic endeavor that became a sociological study, carried some revelation and a deep look into the common lot of making a living via work.
Forty years later, in the 21st century, the situations and conditions may not have changed much, but that interval has rendered much of the dialogue in “Working” as patterned and cliched. Little seems new or moving. Blame the passage of time, or “The Phil Donahue Show” and its clones. Most of what the characters say, accurate and heartfelt though it may be, registers as old-hat, familiar gripes, and unsurprising peeks of pride prevailing.
You understand and even empathize with what the characters express. The teacher with decades of experience, flummoxed by suddenly insolent students and an enforced curriculum that militates against all the methods she found successful, earns a lot of recognition. Same with the woman who sings of the disdain she receives because she chooses to stay at home and be “Just a Housewife,” as if liberation should not encompass all decisions. You listen to her and feel for her, but her words hang in the air without any power. Possibly because all she says is so plainly and unadornedly related.
“Working,” for its entire first act, is too pat for its own good. Nothing stands out as being different from what you’d expect, special, or new. The language, in script and lyric, has no oomph, nothing to catch you. The music is as insignificant as the lyrics, and no one in Keith Baker’s fine cast has the chance to really soar and show some show biz moxie.
Until, and this a big, big until, the second number of the second act, when the marvelous Jenny Lee Stern launches into a number about a waitress who regards every night on the floor as an impromptu one-woman show and lets us see both her enthusiasm and her skill.
While Chaffin made us care, for once, about his mason, Stern enthralls us. She has material that is varied and comic, and she makes the most of the lone number in “Working” that rouses you to attention and makes you say, “Musical theater at last!”
Stern’s song, “It’s an Art” by Stephen Schwartz, turns a Terkel essay into a bravura tour de force in which a woman who loves her job tells us how she charms customers, tends to their needs, gives them an experience to remember, and takes pride in what many know as that rarefied world, the restaurant life.
While other characters, including some played by Stern, relate their stories in a direct, emotionless manner, Stern’s waitress goes into choreographic paroxysms, doing ballet moves with her tray and enlivening Bristol in a production-rescuing moment that makes one wonder why Schwartz, Carnelia, and other composers — including the darling of the day, “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda — could not muster the creativity, zest, and interpretative vigor Schwartz so ably practices in “It’s an Art.” An hour into the show choreographer Stephen Casey has the chance to branch out and create more than ensemble pieces, which are all good but of a general nature that remains routine, while Stern’s waitress and her song have vim and sparkle.
Baker’s cast is uniformly fine, and there are some moments besides Stern’s to mark, for instance when Laura Giknis goes Chaplin-like through the same monotonous, body-crippling motions, other cast members shadowing her, while relating one character’s life as a millworker in a luggage factory, but the payoff for quality performance is not available in the material “Working” provides. The show reminds one of 1960s architecture, serviceable but without distinction or admirable facets. Characters speak earnestly, but nothing but the genuinely poetic (“The Mason”) or sassy (“It’s an Art”) enlightens, reveals, or strikes a chord.
Kevin Toniazzo-Naughton, Demetria Joyce Bailey, and the lustrous-voiced Tamar Greene round out the cast. Linda B. Stockton got the most chance to be creative with an array of costumes that range from “just right” to fun. John Hoey’s lighting takes on significance during Toniazzo-Naughton’s firefighter scene as the entire Bristol stage glows red-orange as if in flame.
Andrew Deppen’s set is, by necessity, functional, but he and Hoey enhance what we see by projections that are best when they augment the text or material. On the other hand, camera projections of characters speaking on stage are less effective and even distracting. (Multi-media often diminishes rather adds to theater, which is, by definition, immediate.)
Working: a Musical, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Through Sunday, November 20, Wednesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., Wednesday and Saturday, 2 p.m., and Sunday, 3 p.m. $44 to $52. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.