Review: 'Working' at Farmers Alley Theatre is a Beautiful Ode to Kalamazoo

The original 1974 musical Working is very much of its time. Based on celebrated Chicago radio journalist Studs Terkel’s third “We-the-People” oral history book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, it told the individual stories, in their own words, of working class Americans at a political and cultural moment when they had a political party that served their interests, and they could earn a living wage and be proud of the lives they could create from their labor. 

Though we now speak of our divisive political climate and we have a president joining the UAW picket line in our very own state, much has changed in the last 50 years; and despite multiple updates and revisions since Stephen Schwartz’s earnest yet commercially unsuccessful musical, the show continued to feel irrelevant, largely because the radical shifts in social structures as well as industry and labor since the ‘70s weren’t reflected in the script.

But in Farmers Alley’s current production, that doesn’t really matter, because it’s been made uniquely relevant to Kalamazoo audiences. Instead of solely focusing on the original generalized archetypal jobs, such as mason, house wife, fireman, trucker, server, mill worker, among others represented in the original book, Director Kathy Mulay took on Studs Terkel’s role as narrative journalist but made it hyperlocal, infusing the production with video clips and new monologues based on interviews with Kalamazoo workers, the likes of whom nearly everyone in the audience will recognize.

It’s a brilliant revision of the show that keeps what always worked in Working and resolves many of its weaknesses. Still a musical celebration of the American working class, it brings to the forefront many of the dedicated people whose lives and labor are the bedrock of our particular community.

Beautifully edited videos by Steve Brubaker present Kalamazoo Central’s principal, a Bronson nurse, LaRue’s Family Restaurant’s owner, a Kalamazoo Farmer’s Market vendor and local family farmer, and Michigan News Agency’s Dean Hauck, among others, each speaking quite eloquently about their who they are and what they do. Those brief clips give way to actors who effectively embody those community members as characters delivering monologues crafted from interviews.

Each of those new pieces are interspersed among the original script in ways that make the archetypal jobs resonate more deeply. Principal Valerie Boggan’s story transitions into the teacher who sings “Nobody Tells Me How” and mentions a former student who is the Bronson nurse who convinces us “As long as I’m physically able I will always be a nurse” despite the hardships of COVID and how it feels to lose beloved patients.

The original musical felt like a hodgepodge of disconnected stories with inconsistent music by multiple composers (Wicked’s Stephen Schwartz, folk-rock star James Taylor, and Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, to name a few) and without a narrator to make meaning of the pieces and parts, it didn’t quite hang together. With Mulay’s inspired oversight, rewrites, new material, and vision, the sum is larger than its parts, a narrative arc appears where one wasn’t, and the larger theme is communicated in a way that hits the audience where it counts—quite literally where we live.

It’s an ode to Kalamazoo and, at times, skirts the edges of advertisement for local businesses. Support the local arts and they’ll convince you to support local businesses. Why not?

Not only is this revival and adaptation of Working an interesting conceit that specifically celebrates our local community, it’s a legitimate artistic achievement as musical theatre with an excellent cast of seven who soulfully capture these meaningful lived lives through monologue, song, and dance (effective choreography by Melissa Sparks); a visually-appealing, industrial-inspired set by Kathy Mulay with lights by Lanny Potts that elegantly help shape and individualize scenes; realistic costumes by Ian Whistler; useful, evocative props by Savannah Draper; and marvelous execution of the score by Music Director Chris Gray with a terrific four-piece rock band that makes everything from the ‘70s rock to latin-inspired tunes sound great.

Indeed, these talented artists are among Kalamazoo’s fine laborers whose work builds the community we love. And here they’ve created a work of art that is a reminder of how fortunate we are to live and work here, a place where its denizens work hard, with integrity and purpose, to improve life for us all.

Working: A Musical
Farmer's Alley Theatre
Sept. 21-Oct. 8