Stephen Schwartz

Reworked "Working" Works at ACT

Review of Working, ACT, Ridgefield

There’s a new kid on the block. ACT, or A Contemporary Theatre of Connecticut, a new musical theater in Ridgefield, CT, has launched its first full season with a reworking of Stephen Schwartz’s Working. The original debuted in 1977, turning the stories collected by Chicago-radio personality Studs Terkel for his best-selling book on working lives into occasions for song and dance. A later version received an Off-Broadway production in 2012 and featured new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The 2019 version at ACT,  revamped by Artistic Director Daniel C. Levine, in consultation with Schwartz, updates elements of the show and, significantly, incorporates material from interviews Levine conducted with Ridgefield workers. The new version offers the best of both worlds: the Broadway polish of the original show together with home-grown local elements.

The cast of Working at ACT, directed by Daniel C. Levine: front row: Brad Greer, Zuri Washington, Laura Woyasz; second row: André Jordan, Monica Ramirez, Cooper Grodin (photos by Jeff Butchen)

The cast of Working at ACT, directed by Daniel C. Levine: front row: Brad Greer, Zuri Washington, Laura Woyasz; second row: André Jordan, Monica Ramirez, Cooper Grodin (photos by Jeff Butchen)

Schwartz in fact combines both aspects as well: a Ridgefield resident, he is a very successful Broadway composer, with shows like Godspell, Pippin, and Wicked to his credit. He is one of the inspirations behind ACT, and the first three seasons will each feature one of his works as part of the Presenting Stephen Schwartz series. But ACT isn’t only about classic musicals. The second slot of the debut season is taken by Austen’s Pride, a new musical about ever-beloved author Jane Austen that is on its way to Broadway, and the third show at ACT will be the popular musical comedy, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, winner of the 2005 Tony for Best Book of a Musical.

The theater at ACT features seating higher than the stage, creating a very open playing space for this very energetic play, accessorized with scaffolds and screens as both backdrops and moveable scenery. The ladders and stairs and various props used to suggest different working areas are augmented by a wide variety of multimedia effects, including clips of local workers at work while their voices can be heard ruminating about their lives and their jobs (Scenic Design, Jack Mehler; Media Design, Caite Hevner). It all blends together seamlessly with the songs and speeches presented by the six-member cast. The intimacy of the staging is such that every member of the audience feels directly addressed by the performers, and that makes for a vibrant community feel.

Brother Truckers (André Jordan, Brad Greer, Cooper Grodin)

Brother Truckers (André Jordan, Brad Greer, Cooper Grodin)

In swift vignettes, we learn something about a range of occupations—tree-cutter, waitress, teacher, firefighter, trucker, mason, care-provider, office worker, fast food deliverer, housewife, housecleaner, millworker, drugstore clerk, tech support, receptionist, deli owner—and can let ourselves by cheered by the fact that there are people who perform these tasks, some of whom are deeply gratified by the nature of the work they do. The point of the show, not without its tensions, is that work is essential to one’s identity and to feeling part of a community, to say nothing of the capitalist system in general. Leisure may be a wonderful thing, but here it’s all about getting down to what needs to be done, for the sake of work itself.

Housewives (Laura Woyasz, Zuri Washington, Monica Ramirez)

Housewives (Laura Woyasz, Zuri Washington, Monica Ramirez)

The cast of three men—Brad Greer, André Jordan, Cooper Grodin—and three women—Monica Ramirez, Zuri Washington, Laura Woyasz—maintains familiar gender binaries of the working world: the cleaners are women, the truckers are men. There is a female millworker (Ramirez) and a male caregiver (Jordan), but a bit more mixing might add some new wrinkles. Craig Carnelia’s “Just a Housewife,” given a soulful rendering by Washington, serves up the plaint of the stay-at-home mom, which may be pertinent again as it was back in the ‘70s. Stay-at-home dads—was that just an ‘80s thing? Another song with a nice sense of occupational anxiety is Woyasz’s believably ethnic teacher in “Nobody Tells Me How,” a sharp aside on how education is always inflected by its setting (lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, music by Mary Rodgers).

From the guys, there’s an inspiring speech by Greer as a firefighter; he also, guitar in hand, serves up Carnelia’s “The Mason” as a celebration of folk endurance; in the staging of James Taylor’s “Brother Trucker,” the guys are serviced by the female cast members in sexy attire, to let us know that the road has its rewards as well as its regrets. Then there’s “Joe,” Carnelia’s ode to the retiree (Grodin) whose life without work is a struggle to maintain interest. The man’s failing health segues nicely into Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “A Very Good Day,” a song for caregivers and nannies which strikes a plaintive note about doing the work that family members shirk.

The firefighter (Brad Greer)

The firefighter (Brad Greer)

With such a range of musical collaborators, the songs are varied in their styles, but all land with a snap, and the unseen musicians pack a punch in Dan Pardo’s arrangements for what is essentially a rock band. Particularly memorable, as a blend of movement and song, are Schwartz’s “It’s an Art,” a tribute to the finesse of waitressing led by Woyasz, and, incorporating significant media effects, “Brother Trucker” and Miranda’s “Delivery.” Other songs, such as Schwartz’s potentially mawkish “Fathers and Sons,” work well in context: here, we’ve just heard three Ridgefield students talking about their families, their studies, and their hopes for their own professional futures.

Formerly a two-act show, the current version plays under 90 minutes with no intermission. And so the two closers of the respective acts follow one another to form the finale. This means that the rueful sense of lost opportunities in Micki Grant’s “If I Could’ve Been” is immediately parried by Carnelia’s “Something to Point to.” The juxtaposition is telling. Whatever we become, in this world, there may be a sense, perhaps known to none but ourselves, of what we might have been or wanted to be; however that plays out, it’s the reality principle that ultimately triumphs in Working, where you are what you do.

The cast of Working, as millworkers, top to bottom: Cooper Grodin, Zuri Washington, Laura Woyasz, André Jordan, Monica Ramirez

The cast of Working, as millworkers, top to bottom: Cooper Grodin, Zuri Washington, Laura Woyasz, André Jordan, Monica Ramirez

It’s rare enough to find the workers of non-glamorous careers celebrated. In our era of celebrity for the sake of celebrity, learning how regular people live can be a worthwhile antidote. There ought to be school trips to see Working, if only to touch base with modern society’s bedrock. And the show isn’t only an occasion for admiring lives given over to workaday jobs, director Daniel C. Levine’s Working is a snappy example of musical theater that really works.

Working: A Musical
From the book by Studs Terkel
Adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso
With additional contributions by Gordon Greenberg and Daniel C. Levine
Songs by Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead, Stephen Schwartz, James Taylor
Directed by Daniel C. Levine

Choreography: Chip Abbott; Music Director: Dan Pardo; Music Supervisor: Bryan Perri; Costume Design: Brenda Phelps; Scenic and Lighting Design: Jack Mehler; Media Design: Caite Hevner; Sound Design: John Salutz; Wig Design and Hair Supervision: Liz Printz; Production Manager: Annie Jacobs; Production Stage Manager: Michael Seelbach; Orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire

Cast: Brad Greer, Cooper Grodin, André Jordan, Monica Ramirez, Zuri Washington, Laura Woyasz

Musicians: Dan Pardo, conductor/keyboard; Matt Hinckley, electric and acoustic guitars; Arnold Gottlieb, electric and acoustic bass; Dennis Arcano, drums and percussion

ACT of Connecticut
February 14-March 10, 2019

Immigrant Experience, Revisited

Review of Rags, Goodspeed

The challenges are many for the current Goodspeed production of Rags, the new, heavily revamped version of a musical that first ran on Broadway, briefly, in 1986, and received several revisions in the 1990s. How to compress the “immigrant experience”—so various, so multicultural—into the book for a musical? How to remain true to the spirit of a long bygone era while also tapping into current sensibilities? How to stage tenements and factories and city streets? How to revisit by now familiar struggles without falling into sentimental cliché?

Have no fears, Charles Strouse and Stephen Schwartz—who came up with new songs—and David Thompson—who wrote the new book for the show—and Rob Ruggiero—who directs with sure pacing—have figured it out. The show is full of many successful touches and the whole jells together to make an involving musical with its heart and head in the right place.

Ellis Island official (Jeff Williams), Rebecca Hershkowitz (Samantha Massell), David Hershkowitz (Christian Michael Camporin) (photos credit: Diane Sobolewski)

Ellis Island official (Jeff Williams), Rebecca Hershkowitz (Samantha Massell), David Hershkowitz (Christian Michael Camporin) (photos credit: Diane Sobolewski)

Thompson went back to the earliest intentions of the author of the original book, Joseph “Fiddler on the Roof” Stein. Then, Rags was about an immigrant Jewish family with a patriarch; now, it’s about Rebecca Hershkowitz (Samantha Massell), a widowed immigrant with a young son, David (Christian Michael Camporin). Key to Thompson’s new conception is that Rebecca finds shelter with the Cohen family—father Avram (Adam Heller) and daughter Bella (Sara Kapner) in a tenement flat where brother-in-law Jack Blumberg (Mitch Greenberg) runs a cottage industry, producing dresses with his wife Anna (Emily Zacharias), for uptown magnate Max Bronfman (David Harris).

The “rags” of the title—already an implied reference to half of the phrase “rags to riches”—are now literalized as part of the activity of sewing. In an early scene, the working of the production line is sung about in a jaunty way by Jack and the others (“Fabric of America”), including schlepper turned sewing-machine operator Ben Levitowitz (Nathan Salstone). It’s a clever way to evoke “rags” and “fabric” while also creating a scene of entertaining choreography—the dance of work (Parker Esse, choreographer).

Rebecca (Samantha Massell), Ben Levitowitz (Nathan Salstone), Jack Blumberg (Mitch Greenberg), Bella Cohen (Sara Kapner), Anna Blumberg (Emily Zacharias)

Rebecca (Samantha Massell), Ben Levitowitz (Nathan Salstone), Jack Blumberg (Mitch Greenberg), Bella Cohen (Sara Kapner), Anna Blumberg (Emily Zacharias)

Key to the show’s success is Ruggerio’s less is more approach. The mainstay of Michael Schweikardt’s versatile set is a detailed, condensed, two-sided flat that spins between the bedroom / living room / workroom and the kitchen, where the Shabbat ceremony is staged in a manner both playful and pious. In such scenes, the older generation—Zacharias, Greenberg, Heller—shines, looking and acting very much the part. The outside world is suggested by tenement-block backgrounds and by greatly enhancing projection designs by Luke Cantarella, which help to convey the immigrant experience with stills and sometimes scurrilous cartoons of the era. Lindo Cho’s costume designs make for some telling contrasts on July Fourth, and help show off Rebecca’s way with a dress.

Another great asset here is Massell’s vibrant Rebecca. Her talents as a seamstress lead her to the fast track, thanks to seductive employer, Bronfman (David Harris is suitably charming and unctuous, reminiscent, perhaps deliberately, of the rich, German playboy in Bob Fosse’s film of Cabaret). Rebecca’s teetering between her earliest American attachments and the stylings of the moneyed create her character’s conflict. Massell’s voice can be stirring, as in “Rags,” an aggrieved song against bigotry that closes Act One, and nicely intimate, as in the roof-top romantic number, “Blame It on the Summer Night” with downstairs Italian neighbor Sal Russo (Sean MacLaughlin). She also plays maternal well in her scenes with David.

Sal Russo (Sean MacLaughlin), Rebecca Hershowitz (Samantha Massell), David Hershowitz (Christian Michael Camporin)

Sal Russo (Sean MacLaughlin), Rebecca Hershowitz (Samantha Massell), David Hershowitz (Christian Michael Camporin)

Special mention goes to the youngest member of the cast and to one of the elder: as young David, Christian Michael Camporin turns in a nicely convincing performance with a strong, clear singing voice, and, as Avram, Adam Heller played my favorite character, adding wit and weightiness whenever needed. His scenes with Lori Wilner as Rachel Brodsky, a street peddler who takes a shine to him, are charming and give us “Three Sunny Rooms,” her not-so-coy come on that displays Schwartz’s ease with a clever lyric. On that score, making worker Ben a would-be songwriter strikes close to home, and Salstone gives “Yankee Boy” old-time moxie and puts beauty into “Bella’s Song.”

Rachel Brodsky (Lori Wilner), Avram Cohen (Adam Heller)

Rachel Brodsky (Lori Wilner), Avram Cohen (Adam Heller)

The romance between Ben and Bella may be a bit underdeveloped and, in general, the tragic dimension of the show feels a bit shoe-horned in for a point. Still, it is a good point and brings in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster as a telling reminder of the evils faced by immigrant populations in their efforts to contribute to the fabric of America and make a good start. The disaster feeds into the labor union activities of neighbor Sal, played with conviction by MacLaughlin. Indeed, making this character an Italian adds both comedy—in his song “Meet an Italian” where stereotypes are compared tongue-in-cheek style—and nicely staged rituals in duet: “Shabbos / Latin Mass.”

The Quintet (Jeff Williams, Sarah Solie, Danny Lindgren, Ellie Fishman, J.D. Saw)

The Quintet (Jeff Williams, Sarah Solie, Danny Lindgren, Ellie Fishman, J.D. Saw)

Another nice touch is the use of “the Quintet” (J.D. Daw, Ellie Fishman, Danny Lindgren, Sarah Solie, Jeff Williams) who mostly play a group of old school bigots—er, patriots—whose America looks down on, and tries to keep down, any members of the huddled masses yearning to breathe free in their country. It’s a useful reminder that the exclusionary nature of U.S. exceptionalism didn’t begin with the Orange Menace. To that end, the defamation a Jewish mother aims at Catholics, and the violence Irish toughs visit upon Jewish women and children remind how closely akin “neighborhoods” could be to “ghettos.” One the one hand, where people who are alike feel comfortable together; on the other, where people “like that” are forced to remain “where they belong.”

center: Sal Russo (Sean MacLaughlin) and the cast of Rags

center: Sal Russo (Sean MacLaughlin) and the cast of Rags

In distinction to Goodspeed’s earlier shows this season—the greatly entertaining Thoroughly Modern Millie and a nearly definitive Oklahoma!Rags doesn’t aim for anything like the same level of big dances and choruses, but it does let our country’s strengths and inconsistencies shine through in a way that recalls folk opera. Particularly, it shows us how resourceful and inspired immigrants can be in response to the challenges of the new, and how worrisome it is that they came here for liberty and found bigotry.

The repairs to Joseph Stein’s old suit of a show have produced spruce new duds. Stein’s tale has been lovingly re-purposed in a way that does the original conception proud, while also finding new heart in a more straight-forward and timely tale. This show may go from rags to riches yet.

Jack Blumberg (Mitch Greenberg), Ben Levitowitz (Nathan Salstone), David Hershkowitz (Christian Michael Camporin), Avram Cohen (Adam Heller), Bella Cohen (Sara Kapner)

Jack Blumberg (Mitch Greenberg), Ben Levitowitz (Nathan Salstone), David Hershkowitz (Christian Michael Camporin), Avram Cohen (Adam Heller), Bella Cohen (Sara Kapner)

 

 

Rags
Book by Joseph Stein
Music by Charles Strouse
Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Revised Book by David Thompson

Music Direction by Michael O’Flaherty
Choreographed by Parker Esse
Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Scenic Design: Michael Schweikardt; Costume Design: Linda Cho; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Projection Design: Luke Cantarella; Sound Design: Jay Hilton; Wig & Hair Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Fight Director: Ron Piretti; Assistant Music Director: William J. Thomas; Orchestrations: Dan DeLange; Vocal Arrangements: David Loud; Dialect Coach: Ben Furey; Casting: Paul Hardt, Stewart/Whitley Casting; Production Stage Manager: Bradley G. Spachman; Associate Producer: Bob Alwine; Line Producer: Donna Lynn, Cooper Hilton; General Manager: Rachel J. Tischler

Cast: Gordon Beck, Christian Michael Camporin, J.D. Daw, Giovanni DiGabriele, Ellie Fishman, Catalina Gaglioti, Mitch Greenberg, David Harris, Adam Heller, Sara Kapner, Danny Lindgren, Sean MacLaughlin, Samantha Massell, Nathan Salstone, Sarah Solie, Jeff Williams, Lori Wilner, Emily Zacharias

Goodspeed Musicals
from October 6, 2017