My late dad declared a journalism major at a tiny two-year college in tiny Coffeyville, Kan. It took him exactly 23 tiny seconds to cop to the wrong turn he'd taken and a little more than half that time to get the hell outta there. “You've either got it or you don't,” he said of his knack for newspapering. In the end, he was one of the most acclaimed and decorated sports writers the mid-20th-century Midwest would produce.
Dad never snagged that degree, relying on his kick-ass labor ethic in marking his route to the top. He'd be scratching his head over The Old Globe Theatre's current Working, a musical nod to the American labor force and, supposedly, a reflection of how its members feel about the world of work. The trappings—a slew of strategically placed laptops, an AIG-type corporate monkey, a flight attendant who says “fucking” to describe a passenger's omelet—are some of the updates to Stephen Schwartz's and Nina Faso's 1978 Broadway entry, and dad would have eaten them up (as I did). But for him, working and community were inseparable. For the 26 characters (played by six actors), there's an unbridgeable chasm between both. This is a show about workers, not working, because the characters never tell us how their jobs interrelate for the betterment of their locales and, by extension, for the country.
Except at the very end. By then, it's past Dad's bedtime.
If you've enjoyed Schwartz's flights of fancy (Godspell, Pippin and Wicked among them), you'll find some common ground here, to say nothing of big names. Schwartz teamed with several of 'em, including the James Taylor, on the 1978 show, adapted from Louis (Studs) Terkel's iconic book of the same name; this generation's entry includes a few newer tunes by young Latino sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda. Schwartz is on his game amid thoughtful lyrics like the ones from his “Fathers and Sons” (“I heard a lot of songs say, ‘Where you goin', my son?' / Now I know they're for real. / Boy, you never stop to think how fast the years run / And the things they steal”).
But if you look closely at Gordon Greenberg's direction and Josh Rhodes' choreography, you might find a few fits and starts between the play's stated intent (a celebration of the nation's common men and women) and the individual songs. A woman's loneliness (“Just a Housewife”) and a stoneworker's pride in a job well done (“The Mason”) are probably the best tunes in the show, but they, like most of the others, never address the larger picture. The singing and dancing illustrate only the characters' particular situations, without a thought to their place in the outside world.And it appears time has passed this piece by in one vital sense. The three females (Marie-France Arcilla, Danielle Lea Greaves and Donna Lynne Champlin) are cast in jobs women have traditionally held (cleaning ladies, housewives and corporate drones); the exact same goes for the men (Adam Monley, Nehal Joshi and Wayne Duvall), who wend their way around as truckers, firemen, masons and that corporate asshole I mentioned before. If you're gonna rethink a show about today's jobs, y'gotta consider the physiques that fill them (househusbands are endemic in the more enlightened pockets of our country, and Tracy Jarman, San Diego's very own fire chief, is a chick).
Consummate self-starter that he was, Dad would have liked “Something to Point To,” the finale. It talks about the worker's need to leave a legacy, no matter how small, by virtue of his or her labors. The thing is that these workers are making their marks, in ways even they may not suspect. For all the decent production values here, they're never really given much leeway in exploring one another's turf to that end. This review is based on a March 19 performance. Working runs through April 12 at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. $45-$79. www.oldglobe.org.Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.