Review: A Familiar Set of Laborers Join the Cast of ‘Working’

Review: A Familiar Set of Laborers Join the Cast of ‘Working’


The most engaging workers in the concert revival of “Working,” which opened on Wednesday night at New York City Center, have only recently been added to this 1977 musical’s cast of characters. But they pulse with a vitality and human detail that makes you think, “Tell me more.”

Take Abdou Sillah, a Gambian-born New Yorker whose résumé includes jobs as a sommelier, long-distance trucker, restroom cleaner and “fry guy” at Planet Hollywood. More immediately relevant, though, is Abdou’s current gig: site supervisor for security at the very place where Anne Kaufman’s production of “Working” runs through Saturday.

“I am New York City Center’s face, I’ll say,” he offers, by way of introduction, “because I am the one who has direct contact with anybody who enters.” He continues: “Everybody who comes into this building, I have different ways of greeting each of them. So many gestures, I will wave, take five … some will dance, I will dance … ”

Now that’s the kind of specifically individual talk that reminds you of the serendipitous pleasures of hearing someone you’ve never met before describe what she or he does for a living. This is especially true when the speaker makes you appreciate the unacknowledged labor of keeping a place you hold dear alive and functional.

Mr. Sillah is not himself on stage. Instead, he is portrayed with becoming modesty and warmth by Christopher Jackson, whom you may remember for portraying George Washington in the original cast of “Hamilton.”

For the 75th anniversary of New York City Center, the creators of this season’s inaugural Encores! Off-Center summer series of staged concerts came up with the charming idea of interviewing City Center employees and weaving their stories into the fabric of a show based on conversations with Americans about the pleasures and pains of how they earn their livings.

So I was very pleased to encounter Mr. Sillah and his daughter Fatou (Tracie Thoms), who checks the bags of those entering City Center, and Angie White (the Oscar- and Emmy-winning actress Helen Hunt), a ticket taker. Then there are Ron (David Garrison), a box office manager, and his son and co-worker, Jon (Mateo Ferro). I learned all sorts of things about the process of ticket-taking, and how it’s changed over the decades.

I wish that the show in which they appear — each in a multitude of roles — were similarly quirky and spontaneous-seeming. Yet there’s a weariness about this latest version of “Working,” which was adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso from Studs Terkel’s oral history of the same title and features musical numbers by seven veteran songwriters. Much of its 90 minutes passes by in a pleasant, anodyne blur — even, or especially, when its performers are singing and dancing.

Perhaps appropriately, “Working” remains a work in progress. Though its Broadway debut in 1978 — which featured Lynn Thigpen and a young Patti LuPone — closed after 24 performances, it quickly became a favorite among school and community theaters, and has been retooled for later productions to match the changing times and workscape.

The current incarnation — an earlier version of which was presented by the Prospect Theater Company in 2012 — features additional written material by Garth Greenberg and songs, if you please, by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the man who gave us “Hamilton.” But its parts have yet to cohere into a dynamic whole (a complaint made about “Working” even in its earliest forms).

The show’s original songwriters are Mr. Schwartz, Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Mary Rodgers, Susan Birkenhead and James Taylor. With the exception of Mr. Taylor, each contributed tuneful, wistful melodies that tend to evaporate from memory even as you listen to them. (The unobtrusive, smooth onstage band here is led by Alvin Hough Jr.)

Mr. Taylor composed what remains the show’s breakout anthem, the subliminally angry “Millwork.” It is nicely sung here by Ms. Thoms. Yet as in much of this show — which is choreographed by Avihai Haham — the staging feels distracting and oddly desultory, as if the cast were still awaiting fuller instruction.

This production is blessed with the presences of Andrea Burns (a crowd pleaser as a self-dramatizing waitress) and Javier Muñoz, another “Hamilton” alumnus, who is allowed only once to fully unfurl his sweet, emotive singing voice, in a teary number by Mr. Carnelia called “Fathers and Sons.”

The handsome set, by Donyale Werle, is likely to stir feelings of déjà vu. A neat shift of perspective at the show’s conclusion, achieved by the full raising of a curtain, makes you realize just where you’ve seen it before.

Those doors, those steps, that stately facade? It’s the onstage version of City Center, which fully deserves its own curtain call.

Working: A Musical

Tickets Through June 29 at New York City Center, Manhattan; 212-581-1212, Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.


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Ben Brantley has been the co-chief theater critic since 1996, filing reviews regularly from London as well as New York. Before joining The Times in 1993, he was a staff writer for the New Yorker and Vanity Fair.

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