REVIEW: Meadow Brook Theatre’s ‘Working’ Celebrates the Hope and Heart that Built America

America was built by men and women who displayed tremendous ingenuity and grit. A new country didn’t happen overnight, so they rolled up their sleeves and put in the work — a lot of hard work. This past Saturday, Meadow Brook Theatre (MBT) paid homage to the plight of the American worker with the musical Working, now playing until March 8 on the campus of Oakland University in Rochester, MI.

L to R: Emily Hadick, Ron Williams, Kim Rachelle Harris, Cory Cunningham, Yemie Sonuga, and Gregory Rodriguez in ‘Working: A Musical’ at MBT.

Photo courtesy of Sean Carter Photography

Based off the 1974 best-selling book by Studs Terkel, Working shines a spotlight on 26 average American workers whose vocations are vital to the fabric of our society, and yet they are often taken for granted (i.e., a schoolteacher) or even invisible (i.e., a cleaner) to those around them. It is interesting to note that the characters in this play have no proper names. They are simply referred to as ‘Man 1,’ ‘Woman 1,’ and so on. This further reinforces the notion of how they blend into the background of daily living. The play was modernized in 2012 to include fresh narratives and more contemporary songs, but what hasn’t changed is that Working is still every bit as relevant today as it was over 40 years ago.

Adapted by composer Stephen Schwartz (Wicked) and Nina Faso, with additional contributions by Gordon Greenburg, this version of Working features 14 songs from the original songwriters such as Schwartz, Craig Carnelia (Sweet Smell of Success), Micki Grant, and James Taylor. Plus, new songs from Tony Award-winning Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton). First act song highlights included “Delivery,” a plucky Miranda-penned song about a young man’s hopes of earning enough money to one day live out his dreams. I was pleasantly surprised to learn “Brother Trucker” is a James Taylor tune about a long-haul driver who loves the open road, but finds it hard to adjust to his life at home. With lines like, “Women’s Lib says they think it’s fine if the choice is mine, but you know they don’t” from the song “Just a Housewife” is sure to resonate with many just as the aptly titled “If I Could’ve Been” that closes the first act will. In the second act, the standouts were the hilarious “It’s an Art” about a waitress who sees serving customers more as an opportunity to perform. Kim Rachelle Harris’ interpretation had the audience in stitches. In contrast, the somber “A Very Good Day” (another Miranda tune) and “Cleanin’ Women” are both heartfelt and hopeful songs about the future and the dreams of something better for the next generation.

Kim Rachelle sings about the fine art of waitressing to a less than impressed Cory Cunningham in Meadow Brook Theatre’s production of ‘Working: A Musical.’
Photo courtesy of Sean Carter Photography

There is a nice flow between these stories that provide such poignant snapshots of America. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the cast is comprised of familiar faces: Katie Akers (Ensemble), Tyler Boda (Ensemble), Cory Cunningham (Man 1), Emily Hadick (Woman 1/Dance Captain), Kim Rachelle Harris (Woman 3), and Ron Williams (Man 3). Working marks the MBT debut for Gregory Rodriguez (Man 2) and Yemie Sonuga (Woman 2). Not only did they look completely at home on stage, but their passionate vocals added so much to the storytelling. The stage setup reflects that of a two-story construction site and among the props sits the band led by musical director Michael Rice, who also plays the keyboard. Sig Hepler plays guitar with Andrew Toering on bass and Brian Buckmaster on percussion. You didn’t always see them, but just like the characters in the play, the show couldn’t go on without them. This also holds true for Debbie Williams (Choreography), Alex Lacamoire (Orchestrations), Brian Kessler (Scenic Design), Liz Goodall (Costume Design), Scott Ross (Lighting Design), Mike Duncan (Sound Design), Terry W. Carpenter (Stage Manager), and Sarah Lin Warren (Assistant Stage Manager).

While fun and lighthearted at times, Working does leave you with a lot to think about by holding up a mirror to society’s prejudices regarding our sense of worth as it relates to the job we have. It also reminds me of a nugget of wisdom my dad always said, “Just because it’s a job you wouldn’t want, doesn’t mean it’s not a job worth doing.” Whether you’re a bricklayer, a publicist, a housewife or a housekeeper — every person wants to feel valued; to know that what they do matters (“Something to Point To”). This musical is accessible, contemporary, and relevant for anyone who has ever worked hard for a paycheck. Don’t be surprised if you catch a glimpse of someone you know – either personally or in passing – in each of these characters. Hopefully, you will come away with a new appreciation for what each of us has to offer. Not only on the job but in life as well. As director Travis W. Walter proclaimed in his notes – “Let’s celebrate the American worker!”

The performance runs just under two hours with a 15-minute intermission.

Tickets range from $36 to $46 and are available by calling the Meadow Brook Theatre box office at 248-377-3300 or going online. Student discounts are available at the box office. Groups of eight or more should call 248-370-3316 for group pricing.

Working is made possible through the generous support of The Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, The National Endowment for the Arts, The Kresge Foundation, The Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation, The Shubert Foundation, and the Meadow Brook Theatre Guild.

Meadow Brook Theatre is a professional theatre located on the campus of Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. For additional information, please visit their website or call 248-377-3300. Meadow Brook Theatre is a nonprofit, cultural institution serving southeast Michigan for 54 years.

About Sarah Hovis

Word manipulator, arts appreciator, sports spectator, and world traveler, Sarah charts her own course as the owner of saliho creative. She uses her creative mind and engaging dialogue to fearlessly bring the written word to life in print and online… all while keeping a watchful eye out for the next literary adventure. You can reach her at [email protected].

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