Directed and Choreographed by Karla Kash

Drake University & StageWest Theatre Co. Co-production, 2010



The Des Moines Register

May 8, 2010

Student performers make ‘Working’ sing

Another corner of today’s paper announces the newest round of unemployment percentages, which analysts released Friday. But those percentages – just under 10 nationwide and about 7 in Iowa – don’t explain how much jobs affect individual lives. Those statistics don’t explain why so many of us define ourselves by the jobs we do or don’t or should have.

For that, let me recommend “Working,” an eye-opening and remarkably timely musical that StageWest, Drake University and A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy (AMOS) opened Thursday at the First Unitarian Church in Des Moines. It’s based on the book by the same name, the 1974 bestseller by the late great Chicago historian Studs Terkel, whose subtitle gets right to the point: “People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.”

That’s pretty much the gist of the show, too, except the characters not only talk, they sing, thanks to a clever script adapted by Nina Faso and Stephen Schwartz (whose own career has produced “Godspell” and “Wicked” for the stage and Disney’s “Pocahontas” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” for the big screen.)

There’s no question the show has an agenda — the Iowa Federation of Labor paid for an ad in the program — but the sheer variety of jobs portrayed elevates the story from a power-to-the-people rally to a more interesting look at what it means to spend 40 or more hours a week answering phones or trucking freight or mopping floors.

The spotlight shines in turn on an ironworker (Sean Buhr), a parking lot attendant (Ken-Matt Martin), a cubicle drone (Cayla Marie Wolpers), a third-grade teacher (Carrie Gabbert), a supermarket clerk (Alexis Van Vleet), a migrant worker (Stephanie Sanyour), a prostitute (Lauren Knutson), a fireman (Dan Haymes), a cleaning woman (Sierra White), a waitress (Sarah Hoch), a retiree (Ben Raanan) and a woman who is “just” a housewife (Chelsea Smith).

Director and Drake associate professor of theater Karla Kash’s all-student cast is large — there are about two dozen in all — but there’s not a weak link in the whole group. Every single portrait is polished, but a few deserve individual shout-outs.

Buhr’s big voice and rugged good looks make his ironworker the perfect blue-collar hero. Martin’s parking lot attendant is a smooth operator, White’s cleaning woman sings with a weary credibility way beyond her years and Hoch’s waitress lives up to her claim — “It’s an art … it all needs to be stylish and smart.”

The set is mostly bare-bones and the church’s acoustics muffle some of the lyrics in the chorus numbers, but whenever the cast spills into the aisles, every voice is right on. The four-piece band, led by keyboardist Bruce Martin, keeps the two-hour show chugging.

The fact that students, who have yet to join the work force themselves, can make a story about the daily grind so compelling is a testament to their talent and the particular details of the source material, which Terkel culled from hundreds of interviews with ordinary people. Through the show we understand, just briefly, what it feels like to stand at a cash register all day in support hose and Dr. Scholl’s shoes. Or repeat the endless choreography at a conveyor belt. Or daydream about the jobs that got away because the kids were born and someone had to take care of Grandpa.

It all adds up to an important reminder that whatever we do, we’re bigger than that. Our lives don’t fit in the ruts we dig, and every once in awhile, we should climb out and take a look around.

The Cultural Buzz
By John Busbee

May 6, 2010

StageWest is working again – working at community-rewarding collaborations, this time with Drake University and friends to benefit AMOS in their current production of Working, based on the book by Studs Terkel. This musical, created largely by Stephen Schwartz and others, creates an interesting contrast to Schwartz’s first musical, Godspell. Working is a raw look at the lower levels of labor, where the everyday workers we all encounter dare to reveal their dreams, frustrations and more.

First, let’s identify the players. StageWest understands how to play well with others. So does the queen of cultural catalysis, Karla Kash, Drake University theatre professor who brings a bevy of talented Drake students out of academia and into the Greater Des Moines community for this dynamic show. AMOS, A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy, is the broad-based, non-partisan, interfaith community organization raising awareness and funds through this project. Their vision is that ordinary people working together can accomplish great things in a democracy and have a say in the destiny of their own community. This collaboration’s choice of shows is masterful, both in content and delivery.

Based upon Studs Terkel’s book, “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do,” Working is a musical exploration of what makes work meaningful for people in all walks of life: from Lovin’ Al the parking valet, to Dolores the waitress, from the fireman to the business executive, the narratives move constantly between mundane details, emotional truths and existential questioning. Although some of the references are dated (the show opened in 1978 for a short Broadway run), the core messages remain strongly relevant today.

Scenic Designer Jan Svec adapts to the Unitarian Church space nicely, taking special advantage of the brick wall backing the performing space. Everyday ladders, fencing and other accoutrements are visually enhanced by Lighting Designer Jay Jagim’s work, especially his back wall graphics. While not the most forgiving of spaces in which to present a show, this large cast, under the skilled direction of Karla Kash fills the confines with waves of music and fine stage work. Her choreography especially is fun to watch as she washes the stage with energized, appealing movement. Musical Director Bruce Martin doubles as orchestra conductor/keyboards, keeping a strong driving pulse underscoring the action through his 4-piece ensemble.

This production really finds its voice when Ken-Matt Martin as Al Calinda, the parking lot attendant, captivates with his feature song, “Lovin’ Al,” delivering his performance with attitude and flair. Jim Kolnik and Abraham Swee bring animated energy to their “Neat to be a Newsboy” number. Carrie Gabbert’s Rose Hoffman shades her part nicely as the schoolteacher in “Nobody Tells Me How.” In one of the more dynamic performances is Alexi Van Vleet as Babe Secoli, the checkout girl. Van Vleet belts “I’m Just Movin’,” which quickly escalates into a Beach Blanket Bingo-style production number. Dan Haymes provides one of the shows many memorable gems with his non-musical scene as a crazed UPS delivery man, letting everyone know the truth behind the company’s delivery techniques. Bringing a deliciously wistful contrast to the story is Chelsea Smith with a wonderful rendition of “Just a Housewife.” Her understated, crisp delivery held the audience in breath-holding admiration. Ben Raanan’s Anthony Coelho, the stone mason, brings a chuckle-inducing blue collar comedy to his scene leading into the pensive masonry-honoring ballad by Jonas Davidow, “Mason.” In a strong, bluesy and dynamic performance, Sierra White gives a performance laced with emotions as her Maggie Holmes, the cleaning woman, leads “Cleaning Women.” Sean Buhr, as Mike Dillard, the ironworker, brings the show full circle with his moving and powerful version of “Fathers and Sons.” Working features a strong, talented ensemble with many fine individual performances.

Working is an entertaining, thought-provoking evening of musical theatre, and well worth the journey to the Unitarian Church on Bell Avenue. Brace yourself for a night of high-energy performing, complex choreography and a delightfully diverse range of song styles delivered by a highly energized ensemble. Working runs through May 15, so put in some well-invested overtime to catch this marvelous show.

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