There’s probably a great musical to be made on the subject of the American worker. But “Working’’ isn’t it.
At least not on the evidence of the underpowered production at Lyric Stage Company, directed and choreographed by Ilyse Robbins.
Robbins did superlative work last year with the Lyric’s “On the Town’’ (as choreographer) and Stoneham Theatre’s “Thoroughly Modern Millie’’ (as director and choreographer). But she proves unable to solve the challenges presented by the musical adaptation of Studs Terkel’s landmark oral history.
Though there are some undeniably moving moments in the Lyric’s “Working,’’ the production never quite hits its stride, seldom generating the raw energy necessary to match the size of its subject matter. Few members of Robbins’s cast are blessed with real vocal prowess, and few of them project distinctive personalities as they transition among more than two dozen characters on Anne Sherer’s stark set, dominated by metal scaffolding and a movable ladder.
Those characters, seen fleetingly, range across many occupations: cleaning lady, fireman, hedge fund manager, interstate trucker, ironworker, UPS delivery man, waitress, stone mason, and so on. Though librettists Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso, along with Gordon Greenberg, have attempted to forge transitions from one character to the next, the absence of a narrative spine in “Working’’ contributes to its lack of a coherent point of view. In a severe case of creative-team overload, fully seven songwriters — including Schwartz, James Taylor, and Lin-Manuel Miranda — contributed to the score. The result is a sketchy group portrait with a blurry identity.
The Lyric is presenting a recently revised “Working,’’ the original Broadway version of which closed in 1978 after less than a month despite a cast that included Joe Mantegna and a pre-“Evita’’ Patti LuPone. That was just a few years after Terkel’s “Working’’ was published, with a subtitle that conveyed the beautiful simplicity of his approach: “People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.’’
And man, could we ever use Studs today. A radio host, historian, and raconteur par excellence who died in 2008 at age 96, Terkel had a matter-of-fact commitment to ensuring that people from all across the occupational spectrum were heard in full and an unrivaled ability to draw out their stories.
The timing, at least, is right for the Lyric’s “Working.’’ After all, what American workers have experienced in recent years has been a kind of psychological earthquake, upending longstanding assumptions and solidifying terms like downsizing, income inequality, long-term unemployment, and economic insecurity in the national lexicon.
In spots, the show does capture its characters’ attitudes toward their jobs and the attitudes of others toward them. The alienation from one’s work is piercingly evoked in “Millwork,’’ written by Taylor and led at the Lyric by Tiffany Chen, who embodies the poignancy of a woman for whom daydreams are the only escape from an anonymous, repetitive, and monotonous job. In the end, though, she knows “It’s me and my machine/For the rest of the morning/For the rest of the afternoon/And the rest of my life.’’
But too many of the songs strike a similarly wistful, doleful chord or settle for a facile gloss on the issues they raise. Craig Carnelia’s “Joe,’’ about an elderly retired man (played by Christopher Chew) who wanders through his empty days while his thoughts drift to a girl he knew when he was young, is particularly mawkish. Only intermittently do the characters in this “Working’’ register with the fierce individuality and rambunctious spirit that fairly leaps off the pages of Terkel’s book.