The cast members in St. Ambrose University's production of Working offer a somewhat unexpected and altogether delightful sincerity in their portrayals of American workers in various trades. These young actors, after all, presumably don't have much, if any, career experience as full-time masons, receptionists, or prostitutes, among other professions. Yet they handle this musical as though possessing full knowledge of the experiences of the average worker, which, during Wednesday's dress rehearsal, helped me connect with the oftentimes funny, sometimes touching material.
Stephen Schwartz's and Nina Faso's adaptation of Studs Terkel's book is a series of monologues and songs, with each one sharing an individual perspective of an average working person. One of its highlights is the politically-incorrect teacher (Alexis Greene) who laments how lessons now have to include the word "fun," and how paddling students is no longer an option. Becca Brazel's "It's An Art" - a number about a waitress who considers serving tables a performance - is a showstopper, as is anything performed by the full-voiced Miracle Montrice Leach. Shellee Frazee's choreography is also a delight, with high-energy, peppy footwork that's fascinating to watch while never feeling over-choreographed. And every costume designed by Dianne Dye stands out for its clear connection to the character wearing it.
Under the music direction of Thea Engelson, the on-stage musicians are in fine form and play at just the right volume, though I did sometimes wish Engelson had picked up the tempo, just a bit, on a few of the songs. I also felt that director Corinne Johnson's pacing could've been a little quicker and punchier on a few of the comedic scenes. But her staging - which makes full use of scenic designer Matt Elliott's multi-tiered platforms and stairways - does allow a comfortable breathing room that prevents any of the laugh-worthy highs and more emotional moments from being missed.
Working itself isn't perfect, as some of the songs by composers Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mary Rodgers, Susan Birkenhead, and James Taylor (with Schwartz's own compositions, I thought, glaringly obvious for their superiority) are forgettable or melodically dull. However, the portrayals of Johnson's cast rise above the mediocre, such as Sam Jones' energetic take on "Brother Trucker," which is almost as good as his monologue delivered as a cold, calculating businessman. Max Moline's understated "Delivery" suits his young, naive fast-food delivery boy perfectly, while Jordan Webster-Moore's take on his grocery-store bag boy's "I Just Keep Movin'" includes a moving amount of heart. "Un Mejor Dia Vendra," meanwhile, ended too quickly for me, as I wanted to hear more of Chris Galván's and Vince Solis' enchanting harmonies.
While many in the show compare, it's tough to find a scene more touching than Jonathan Johnson's "Joe," in which a retired man recounts his life. Brooke Schelly's "Millwork," a song about life as an assembly-line employee, comes closest due to the performer's stirring vocals and emotion. But a close second would actually be a tie between Kayla Lansing's "Just a Housewife," in which she sings about the stereotypes projected on her as a stay-at-home-mom, and Kelci Eaton's unapologetic description of life as a female escort.
To be forthright, I anticipated catching at least a handful of things that would warrant constructive criticism, but other than some technical issues that still needed to be ironed out, St. Ambrose University's Working was ready for an audience two days prior to opening night. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and if any improvements were made since Wednesday, the production's run is sure to please many a patron.
Working runs at St. Ambrose University's Galvin Fine Arts Center (2101 Gaines Street, Davenport) through October 5, and more information and tickets are available by calling (563)333-6251 or visiting SAU.edu/galvin.