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American Playhouse: Working (1982)
Season 1, Episode 14
A who's who of stars to be
11 April 2007
"Working" is looked at as a wonderful show with eclectic music and only the most tenuous of connective matter. Basically a collection of several dozen monologues and songs, it doesn't necessarily translate well to the screen -- large or small. This teleplay is bookended with speeches from the author of the source material, Studs Terkel. The presentation is repetitive: almost each scene consists of one actor addressing the camera. When presented on stage, the directorial trick is to make it not look like that, and numerous techniques can be employed to achieve that end. On screen, however, it seemed like the same thing over and over again.

Several different composers contributed material to the Broadway production and this adaptation. Mary Rodgers contributes a traditional musical theater tune for the schoolteacher, sung wanly in this production by Barbara Barrie. Craig Carnelia contributes several songs including "If I Coulda Been" and "Something to Point To", and Micki Grant contributes "Lovin' Al", among others. Mega-Singer/Songwriter James Taylor adds some of the best songs, including the powerhouse "Millwork", and musical theater luminary Stephen Schwartz pens some of his most personal music, including the moving "Fathers and Sons".

However, there are some extraordinary performances that keep the presentation alive. Barry Bostwick as the Steelworker shows a surprisingly strong singing voice. Scatman Carruthers is endlessly amusing as Lovin' Al, as well as Carole Schwartz as the gum-chewing grocery cashier. Underrated Vernee Johnson is disturbingly honest as the secretary, and Patti LaBelle tears it up as the cleaning lady. It's always wonderful to see Lynne Thigpen doing anything at all (if it were my responsibility to re-do every artistic endeavor from 1972 to 2005, I would put Lynne Thigpen in every role in every show everywhere), and she was in perfect counterpoint with Edie McClurg. Rita Moreno makes a fantastic turn as the waitress, and Barbara Hershey is subtly seductive as the hooker. Charles Durning, Didi Conn, and Beth Howland round out an impressive cast list. The crowning achievement in all of this belongs to Eileen Brennan as the Millworker. With the song sung in haunting underscore by Jennifer Warnes, Ms. Brennan's physical manifestation of the pain of performing 30 years of the same 40-second repetitive act is all too real. Watching her scene makes tracking down a copy of this production worth the difficulty.

In all, 7/10. Repetitive, but the music and the cast list pull this out of the toilet.
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