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Theater review: Working

A scene from "Working" at the Farmers Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo
Becky Klose
Farmers Alley Theatre
A scene from "Working" at the Farmers Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo

Farmers Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo recently opened a revised and updated version of the musical “Working.” WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review.

The most endearing quality of “Working,” is its insight into the human value of people that are otherwise taken for granted in the workplaces around us.

These are the people who wait on us, nurse us back to health, grow our food, teach our children, and build our homes. They experience challenges, triumphs, and setbacks in the workplace. More important, they have stories to tell.

A gifted seven-member ensemble vividly brings these stories to life in a memorable evening at Farmers Alley Theatre. Each succeeds in creating several fully dimensional characters and makes an emotional connection with the audience through first-person, direct address.

Director Kathy Mulay’s production features lively choreography, clever use of movement, and revelatory monologues by workers whose voices are frequently dismissed by our society. The show includes uplifting and poignant songs by Stephen Schwartz, James Taylor, Lin- Manuel Miranda, and others.

A key element to note about this version of “Working” is that it’s set in present-day Kalamazoo. It uses the stories of real-life working people, our friends, neighbors, merchants, and business owners in our community. This concept of “localism” brings a sense of immediacy, authenticity, and relevance to this production.

Promotional logo for "Working" at Farmers Alley Theatre
Farmers Alley Theatre
Farmers Alley Theatre
Promotional logo for "Working" at Farmers Alley Theatre

An example is Dean Hauck, the owner of Michigan News Agency in downtown Kalamazoo. Wearing a red and black checkered shirt, her image appears on a screen upstage as an audio recording narrates her amazing story of internment as a child in the Philippines by the Japanese during World War Two, followed by her ownership of one of the community’s literary centers.

Halfway into the story, actor Shannon Huneryager, wearing the same shirt, strides from behind the screen. She resumes Hauk’s first-person narrative, embodying the spirit and tenacity of a proprietor determined to keep her locally owned business operating in the age of Amazon.

Similarly, performer Aviva Pressman steps into the narration and persona of Lori McClain, the owner of Presentation Cleaning. Pressman tells us McClain’s story as she meticulously and effortlessly applies the feather duster. Pressman also portrays a singing waitress, full of energy and flourishes. Supported by the ensemble, her joy-filled number “It’s an Art” lifts the first act, ending in an homage to those who execute their working roles with style.

For many of the roles portrayed in the work-a-day world of “Working,” family ties are a strong motivating factor to continue with jobs that are less than inspiring.

Altamiece Carolyn Cooper delivers “Cleanin’ Woman” with a gospel flair. Her upbeat and hopeful song tells the story of a third-generation floor scrubber who sees more than a brush and pail in her daughter’s future.

In the frenetic song “Brother Trucker,” Marcus Jordan, sitting on a rolling stool holding a steering wheel, laments the life of a driver separated from family by his road-bound job.

Later, in “Fathers and Sons,” Jordan presents the thoughtful reflections of a working father who was once his son’s hero.

In the poignant “Un Mejor Dia Vendra,” a young immigrant farm worker portrayed by Michael De Souza remembers his mother and her vision of a better life to come. For De Souza’s character, this mournful song, sung in English and Spanish, that better life never comes.

Curt Denham’s song “Joe” explores what happens when a person’s working life is over. After his wife’s death, Denham’s character recounts filling the hours of his lonely days with empty visits and suppers of boiled hot dogs. At the end of the number, Denham’s fading retiree is quietly escorted off the stage by an orderly from his retirement home.

Atis Kleinbergs is well suited for the blue-collar roles of those who build our homes and buildings. During and after “All the Livelong Day,” the show’s opening montage, his vigorous portrayal of an iron worker sets the stage for other characters who find their identities in their jobs.

Kleinbergs reprises the brawny ironworker persona in the show’s stirring finale, “Something to Point To,” and leads the ensemble in sounding a note of pride for all workers and builders.

As the performers close the show by pointing to the buildings that they have created, they are really pointing to the people and stories behind those buildings. Their stories are everywhere around us. All we have to do is look and listen.

Gordon Bolar was WMUK's General Manager from 2011 to 2016. He joined the station in 2006 as Development Director. After retiring as General Manager, Gordon has continued to review theater for WMUK.