Working does more than punch the clock | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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Working does more than punch the clock

Theo Ubique's staging celebrates the dignity of everyday labor.


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As the populist question goes, "If work's so great, how come they have to pay you to do it?" That attitude provides the jumping-off point for Working, the musical based on Studs Terkel's 1974 book of interviews where "people talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do." Originally adapted in 1978 by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso, the show got a revision several years ago from writer-director Gordon Greenberg. The score features songs from Mary Rodgers of Once Upon a Mattress fame to James Taylor to (more recently) Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Theo Ubique uses Greenberg's version in Christopher Chase Carter's staging, which starts off unevenly but, thanks to a generally strong cast, builds an emotional arc by the second act. Even in its revised form, the current incarnation doesn't fully address the "gig economy," though Miranda's "A Very Good Day" gives voice to the exploding (yet still invisible) class of caregivers for children and the elderly. Though the first act feels more generalized in its grievances about work (lack of respect for blue-collar labor, the boredom of working as a stay-at-home mom, a long-distance trucker, and a food-service minion), Taylor's "Millwork," performed by Kiersten Frumkin's luggage-factory worker, goes into specific and grim detail about the harshness and danger of the environment.

Cynthia F. Carter's performance of "Cleanin' Woman" (written by Micki Grant) captures the primary (and perhaps obvious) reason many of these characters work so hard: to make it possible for their kids to have more options in life. And as the concluding song, "Something to Point To" (by Craig Carnelia) movingly makes clear, what most people also want out of a job is to feel that they've created something that will last beyond their time on earth. Theo Ubique's production elevates the occasionally dutiful clock-punching material to create a moving collage of the dignity of doing one's best without fanfare.  v

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