Saturday, May 04, 2013

Creatively conceived and thought provoking WORKING at Blank Canvas

Probing into the lives of real people often yields fascinating theatre.  The classical musical CHORUS LINE was based on interviews that Elyrian, James Kirkwood, wove into a fascinating tale of the true life and theatrical experiences of Broadway singers and dancers. 

Cleveland writer Faye Sholiton used her experiences in interviewing Holocaust survivors to develop her heart wrenching THE INTERVIEW.

Studs Terkel, noted as the spokesman for the workingman, wrote the book WORKING:  PEOPLE TALK ABOUT WHAT THEY DO ALL DAY AND HOW THEY FEEL ABOUT WHAT THEY DO, based on his probing into the workday lives of men and women.  Terkel’s book was made into the musical WORKING with book by Stephen Schwartz (PIPPIN, GODSPELL, WICKED) and Nina Faso.  The music and lyrics were the creation of not only Schwartz, but a bevy of others.

A version of WORKING is now on stage at Blank Canvas Theatre.  Version, because the musical has gone through many incarnations.  It was brought to life in Chicago in 1977.  It was rewritten and staged on Broadway, where it had a short run, in 1978.  In 1999 another version was presented, while in 2009 Schwartz had another go at it, which included adding new songs.  In 2011 a further revised version opened in Chicago.

At Blank Canvas, Pat Ciamacco, the ingenious artistic director of Blank Canvas, has taken on the task of shrinking the cast and added an awe-inspiring visual dimension.  It’s going to be interesting to compare this edition to the one that will be staged at Porthouse Theatre, on the grounds of Blossom Center, this summer.

The show explores Cleveland workers from their early Monday morning blues, to the pride, rewards, stresses and frustrations of average working people.  Through the lives of such individuals as a corporate executive, schoolteacher, fireman, policeman, waitress, bricklayer, millworker, truck driver, call center operator, housewife, UPS deliveryman, laid off worker, nurse, cleaning woman, and student, we get a vision of real people, doing real jobs, while leading real lives.  (Editorial note:  the use of “man” and “woman”, rather than “person” is used to specifically designate the sex of the person being described and who was interviewed.)

Their tales are related through both words and songs.  The day starts off, for example, with the song, “All the Livelong Day,” where the steelwork tells the dangers of his job, as a hedge fund manager relates what he does, as a project manager relates her life and goals.  The various people relate individually and sometimes in groups, to flesh out the tales of real life, real jobs, and real thoughts and feelings.

We experience, in “Nobody Tells Me How,” the frustration of a schoolteacher who has seen her idyllic small classroom of motivated students who want to learn morph into large classes of students who she must teach English as a second language, as well as the fear of a stewardess who knows that the landing gear on her plane is stuck and the plane is about to make a crash landing, but must keep the information a secret so as not to panic the flyers.

In the emotionally “If I Could Have Been,” one of the production’s highlights, the company sings of things wanted but not achieved.  Caregivers relate their emotional highs and lows in “A Very Good Day,” while a steelworker laments how much of family life he missed in “Fathers and Sons.”

The production wraps up with a message that everyone should have “Something to Point To.”  It echoes Theodore Roosevelt’s theme that, “Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing,” and is a Terkel homage to working men and women.

Ciamacco has relocated the setting to the Cleveland area.  References are made to local communities, costumes include Browns, Indians and local college paraphernalia.  During the staging, two screens show pictures and drawings that relate specifically to the places being referenced in the songs and words.  Hundreds of local images, specifically photographed by Andy Dudik and Ciamacco, are displayed.  Archive pictures of the building of the Terminal Tower and historic Cleveland scenes are also inserted.  This is a masterwork of visual supports that amplify the oral ideas.

The set, also designed by Ciamacco, resembles the metal framework of a building, complete with art deco trim, similar to the Terminal Tower and other downtown buildings, with a backdrop, painted expertly by Noah Hrbek, depicting the Cleveland skyline.

The cast is universally strong.  Six performers (Doug Bailey, Ian Atwood, Derrick Winger, Tasha Brandt, Joanna May Hunkins and Sarah Edwards-Maag) aided by wigs and costume changes, recreate the twenty-six lives that exemplify the working people of the area.

Special kudos to the vocal abilities of Derrick Winger, Ian Atwood and Tasha Brandt, though all the voices are excellent.

Luke Scattergood (costumes) and Sarah Lynne Nicholas (props) did yeoman work in gathering the many design specific requirements for creating correct visual imagery.

Musical director Lawrence Wallace and his fellow band members, Chris Andrews and Cody Lumsden, do a great job of musical interpretation and underscoring rather than drowning out the singers.

Though the production makes for a little long sit of almost an hour and a half without an intermission, the production is well paced and holds the attention.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  WORKING is the type of theatrical experience that is both purposeful and entertaining.  The message is clear, the lyrics and spoken words meaningful.  This is a well performed, meticulously conceived, and fine production under the creative powers of Pat Ciamacco.

Blank Canvas’s WORKING runs though May 18 in its near west side theatre, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland.  Get directions to the theatre on the website.  Once you arrive at the site, go around the first building to find the entrance and then follow the signs to the second floor acting space.  It’s an adventurous battle. For tickets and directions go to