Originally published in the Los Angeles Loyolan. For original, please refer to: Mellow ‘Working’ suffers from weak material – Los Angeles Loyolan.
Currently in the middle of a two-week stint at the Strub Theatre, the LMU theatre arts and dance department’s run of “Working,” the musical adaptation of the Studs Terkel book of the same name, is about the occupations of everyday people.
The goal, it would seem, would be to take these ordinary jobs and make them extraordinary through performance, but the lack of strong narrative in the show keeps the songs from being anything other than standalone musical performances punctuating small vignettes.
Professor Jim Holmes’s direction is solid considering his source material. He has taken several liberties, including rap verses of some songs, but ultimately the original musical just isn’t strong enough to keep an audience invested. Actors change characters quickly with no real introduction, and the songs, while well performed, aren’t wholly memorable.
The ensemble talent is good, with some standouts, but on opening night there was an overwhelming sense of apathy permeating the show. The actors almost universally looked disconnected from their performances, putting on good faces for the sake of the theater, but never seeming to enjoy themselves.
It’s a shame that the energy level of the cast seemed so low because there were seriously strong highlights among them. Senior theatre arts major MacKenzie Campbell gets a few solid numbers, but her brightest moment is also the entire show’s shining showstopper: “Just a Housewife.” In it, Campbell’s character, Kate Rushton, laments the judgments of society and how she’s seen as “just someone’s mother.” The song is the best composed of any in the show, and Campbell knocks it out of the park.
Neither the character of Roberto Nuñez nor that of Anthony Coehlo gets a strong song to call his own. That’s disappointing because sophomore theatre arts major Julian Garcia has the best energy and investment among the ensemble. With a strong song, he could have used his dulcet singing voice and high energy to steal the show. Instead, he’s left with “Un Mejor Dia Vendra,” a song that, while lovely, isn’t quite noteworthy enough. Even worse is “Cleanin’ Women,” a song performed by the clearly talented sophomore theatre arts major Imani Hayes as character Maggie Holmes. The tune is significantly weaker than it could have been – it’s more of a trifle than a powerful statement about working in housekeeping so that the future generations wouldn’t have to suffer the same fate. Not only that, but the song is simply unmemorable. A strong performer like Hayes deserves a song that shakes the rafters, not one so thoroughly bland.
The word “bland” is, in fact, a pretty good way to sum up the show. The music, while performed with aplomb by the live band, is just too basic and standard to be unforgettable. The acting talent, while at a high caliber, never really gets excited about their work. The set design is intriguing, using vertical movement well, and the lighting design is really fascinating at several different points, both musical and non-musical. But even great visuals can’t boost the energy of the show too much.
Despite Holmes’s strength as a director, it must be questioned why “Working” was chosen in the first place. Musicals are meant to be a kick, a blast of surrealism that exaggerate life and are punctuated with a giant exclamation point. Sadly, “Working” ends not with an exclamation point, but with a period. It just never fulfills its mission and leaves the audience wondering what could have been.