Tony Frankel, theatre critic for Stage and Cinema here.
theTRIBE’s simplistic production of an updated revision of WORKING – Stephen Schwartz’ soapy musical adaptation of Studs Terkel’s book – actually left an emotional impression, largely thanks to seasoned performers and a huge dose of earnestness and love. Yes, there is some amateur acting and silly dialects. Yes, the group numbers scream to be choreographed and the staging by Tony Oliver lacks finesse, but individual songs and monologues manage to capture our hearts, which is clearly the intention of this production. The show also came as a much-needed relief from other Hollywood Fringe entries that celebrated style over substance. WORKING, which is a series of vignettes based on actual interviews with regular working people, is all about substance.
Admittedly, it has been tough for any company to have a triumphant production; the songs are written by no less than seven people (including James Taylor!), and the book (by Schwartz and Nina Faso) becomes outdated with each new revision; even the original Broadway outing, with Patti Lupone, Bob Gunton, Joe Mantegna and Rex Everhart only lasted 24 performances. It may well be a show, along with Schwartz’ own PIPPIN, that will be forever problematic.
But when Tim Borquez gently and gracefully delivers the bittersweet and tender song “Fathers and Sons,” which captures the sorrows and joys of a working father, the effect is shattering. Stephen Stewart, who is much younger than Joe, the retiree he portrays, nonetheless breaks our hearts with stellar acting and a rich voice – in fact, it is the best interpretation of “Joe” that I have seen in four different productions. The plight of an immigrant farmworker – “Un Mejor Dia Vendra” – is delivered with a plaintive cadence by Mr. Oliver, and Amanda Celine Miller has an hysterical turn as a receptionist.
A special thank you to Fiama Fricano, who simply wowed us as Madame Morrible in the San Francisco production of WICKED, making Patty Duke – whom Ms. Fricano covered – look anemic by comparison (no, come to think of it, Patty Duke’s performance was anemic all on its own). It’s rare to see a star turn in such a small space and Ms. Fricano beautifully acts and sings the role of Rose Hoffman, a schoolteacher who is trying to keep up with the times.
True, this was a proletarian, community production, but its ultimate ability to leave us inspired shines a light on what is missing from so many theatre outings: simplicity and storytelling.