REVIEW: Working - Original London Cast

Recording CoverOver the past few years, London’s Southwark Playhouse has built an enviable reputation as the home of an eclectic series of productions of American musicals. Productions from a 250-seat fringe theatre south of the river, though, do not usually yield cast recordings, so the new (and thoroughly enjoyable) cast album from last year’s European premiere production of Working is a very welcome surprise. Luke Sheppard’s production was a dazzling, more-or-less perfect gem in the theatre, but plenty of theatrical gems have gone unrecorded. This one, though, has a unique selling-point: two brand-new(ish) songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda augmenting the score’s (already) eclectic range of songs from a diverse set of composers and lyricists.

If Miranda’s songs are the reason we got this album, we should all be grateful, because the recording is every bit as good as the production was in the theatre. This version of the show represents a significant revision; four songs are gone (Traffic Jam, Lovin’ Al, I’m Just Movin’, and Un Mejor Dia Viendra), and the show has been restructured as a one-act. The cast list has been slimmed down as well, and so have the orchestrations, because you can’t fit the Broadway production’s 20 actors and 24-piece band into a small converted industrial space with no wingspace and no orchestra pit, and you certainly can’t pay for them if there are only 250 seats and you’re charging £25 per ticket. And yet somehow, despite this production’s limitations of scale, this album – partly recorded live – is an absolute joy from beginning to end.

It goes without saying – or it should – that the songs held over from earlier incarnations of the show are all terrific, and Miranda’s new songs sit among them very well. Working essentially consists of a series of vignettes: a selection of songs and monologues, each delivered by a different character, with a kind of dramatic through-line but no “story”, based on Studs Terkel‘s seminal 1974 book of oral histories about life in the American workplace. The show was written/compiled/assembled by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso; instead of supplying the whole of the score himself, Schwartz enlisted an eclectic set of songwriters, including Mary Rodgers, Susan Birkenhead, Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, and James Taylor, to supply a couple of numbers each. It’s an approach that probably shouldn’t work, but it succeeds triumphantly. Apart from the opening and closing numbers, the songs are all character monologues drawn from Terkel’s interviews, although this isn’t quite verbatim theatre along the lines of something like London Road. The show’s various songwriters craft song lyrics out of the interview material rather than setting reported speech directly to music, and the result is a startling, moving, warmly real collection of characters, presented without cliché – ordinary people looking for meaning in ordinary lives.

Miraculously, the recording manages to preserve the wonderful immediacy of the performances. Gillian Bevan’s exultant It’s An Art is worth the cost of the album on its own, and she also finds exactly the right tone of bittersweet/sour resignation in Nobody Tells Me How, the lament of a teacher at the end of her career who can’t keep up with a world that has changed beyond all recognition. Siubhan Harrison’s Millwork – which has been covered by everyone from Emmylou Harris to Bette Midler to Bruce Springsteen – is the perfect combination of hard and soft edges, and it’s as good a performance as the song has ever had. Krysten Cummings finds tremendous emotional depth in Just a Housewife, and then later belts Cleanin’ Women into the rafters. Dean Chisnall throws himself into Brother Trucker with unrestrained glee. Liam Tamne has great fun with Delivery, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s energetic, surprisingly touching story of a teenager in his first minimum-wage job, and he and Harrison do a lovely job of Miranda’s other song, A Very Good Day, which presents parallel monologues by a pair of caregivers. Towering above them all is Peter Polycarpou, who makes something quite exceptional out of Joe, Craig Carnelia’s story of a blue-collar worker bewildered by retirement.

If there’s any complaint about this recording – and the fact that it exists at all, never mind that it’s so good, is so surprising that to complain at all seems churlish – it’s that it (inevitably) includes just the songs, which means none of the show’s scenes or monologues were preserved. Unfortunately, that means the six very fine young actors who made their professional debuts as the production’s ensemble are mostly relegated to the status of backing singers. It also means we don’t get Dean Chisnall’s devastating performance of the fireman’s monologue, which took on a new dimension in the wake of the horror of Grenfell Tower.

Fans of the show, too, may miss the songs that have been cut, and those cuts mean this probably isn’t going to replace either the original Broadway cast recording or the complete recording of the LA Theatre Works audio production. And while Martin Higgins’s new orchestrations more than make the most of the resources at hand, this version of the show is very definitely a chamber musical, and the recording reflects that. Still, this recording makes an excellent case for the revised version of the show: the sound is remarkably clear given that it was partly recorded live, the (small) band sounds terrific, and the performances haven’t lost any of the spark they had in the theatre. This revival was one of last year’s great theatrical highlights; that doesn’t always translate into a great cast recording, but it does here. Against all the odds, and I assume on a shoestring budget, this is an exceptional souvenir of an exceptional production.


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