‘Working’ review: An enjoyable but uneven production at City Center

Encores! Off-Center series kicks off with
Encores! Off-Center series kicks off with “Working.” Photo Credit: Mariah Lopez

‘Working: A Musical’ runs at City Center through Saturday, 131 W. 55th St., citycenter.org.

To say that City Center is kicking off this summer’s Encores! Off-Center series, in which historic Off-Broadway musicals receive concert revivals, with the 1970s blue collar revue “Working” would be a dramatic understatement.

The storied midtown performing arts venue (which just celebrated its 75th anniversary) is doing more than that. It’s using the musical as an opportunity to pay tribute to itself and its longtime backstage and front-of-house employees, who repeatedly pop up as characters in newly penned monologues.

This well-intentioned but forced reworking leads to uneven results in what is otherwise an enjoyable and high-spirited 90-minute production. It’s directed by Anne Kauffman and features a diverse cast ranging from Oscar winner Helen Hunt to “Hamilton” alumni Christopher Jackson and Javier Muñoz, Andréa Burns (“In the Heights”), David Garrison (“Wicked”) and Tracie Thoms (“Rent”).

Based on Studs Terkel’s classic 1974 collection of interviews “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do,” the revue explores a cross-section of individuals from different socioeconomic backgrounds through an alternating mix of songs and confessional monologues.

The cast members take on various roles such as the money manager, fast food worker, caretaker, retiree, waitress, fireman and phone operator. Their character portraits tend to be either melancholy or upbeat.

The pop-rock score includes contributions by a variety of songwriters such as Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked,” “Godspell”), Lin-Manuel Miranda (who wrote two songs for a revised edition during his pre-“Hamilton” years), Craig Carnelia, James Taylor and the late Mary Rodgers (“Once Upon a Mattress”).

Some of the more poignant songs include Carnelia’s “The Mason,” about the satisfaction of creating something physical that is “made to last," and Taylor’s “Millwork,” in which a machine operator laments the physical labor and overwhelming boredom of her assembly line job.

Technically speaking, “Working” premiered in New York on Broadway, not Off-Broadway, but it was a fast flop that only later gained popularity with high schools as an unusual, under-the-radar musical. As such, it is a fitting selection for the Off-Center series.

The City Center-focused monologues do not fit in well with the rest of the musical and tend to be slow and repetitive. However, it was a novel idea to pay tribute to the people "working" all around the audience. It also leads to a visual surprise at the end.

Hunt (an interesting but bewildering addition to the cast) is not much of a vocalist and is barely able to make it through her songs in which she plays a housewife and grade school teacher. On the other hand, the rest of the cast succeeds in bringing individual personality to their various portrayals and seamlessly switching among them. A quartet of backup dancers and singers adds energy to each musical number.