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MTG sings stories of everyday heroes in ‘Working’

Review
Autumn Zapp describes the life of a waitress in Musical Theatre Guild of Butler's “Working: The Musical.” From left are Carrie Allio, Autumn Zapp and Ken Smith. Michael Dittman/Special to the Eagle

Musical Theatre Guild of Butler’s production of “Working: The Musical” is a vibrant adaptation of Studs Terkel's 1974 book, “Working.”

The musical celebrates the dignity of work as it explores the lives of diverse characters — from a waitress to a hedge fund manager — through monologues and songs that delve into their daily routines, aspirations and challenges.

Director Robert “Nation” Boothe, along with Glenn Bittner on lighting and Phillip Ball on sound, have created a meticulously crafted show that flows from one character to the next. Monochromatic sets and costumes are set off with video effects that enhance the production without overwhelming.

The ensemble packs 14 songs into its short run time, backed by the tight live band of Evan Weston, Nick Depew, Jacob Glath and Jessica Sanzotti, led by Christina Savannah. Sets and scenes transition with practiced ease, allowing the audience to focus entirely on the actors as they give an intimate look into the characters.

Zach Frye tackles his Southern rock-flavored number “Brother Trucker” with aplomb as backup dancers writhe, hidden behind the translucent video screens to stunning effect. Stephanie Kobil embodies a socialite who describes her flirting and wheedling to garner donations from her rich and powerful friends.

Autumn Zapp plays a waitress in the most extravagantly staged number, “It’s An Art.” Zapp spins around the stage — standing on tables, wrapping herself like a matador — and uses her gutsy voice to explore the difference between service and servility.

Frank Baker shows range in delivering monologues as a hedge fund manager justifying his avarice, a stone mason who takes pride in the longevity of his craft in the song “The Mason,” sung by Jacob Glath, and as a firefighter who describes the emotional toll of his work.

In “Delivery,” Jeremy Poynton’s voice starts with a yearning and then builds to a release as he rhapsodizes on the freedom of delivering. As a teacher, Robin Kriley’s soothing voice counterpoints her discomfort with her immigrant students, her frustration with a lack of professional support, and her affection for corporal punishment in “No One Tells Them How.”

Carrie Allio brings a flight attendant to life as she describes a terrifying flight all the while deftly handling a plethora of props. Allio also shines in “Just A Housewife” as she sings in a dulcet tone about how it feels to work so hard and to be respected so little.

In “Millwork,” one of the strongest numbers, Heidi Nicholls Bowser plays a worker in a suitcase factory. Bowser creates a gruff woman who, while proud of her work, never expected to be doing it. Behind her, her co-workers create a sort of ballet of repetition as Bowser, with a sung delicateness that gives a glimpse inside the character’s tough exterior, describes the never-ending motions and injuries that she and the other women face.

As an eldercare worker, David M. Halin touchingly describes his work caring for a man whose children have abandoned him. Jaycie Frye joins him in the emotional duet “A Very Good Day” as a nanny who takes care of children whose parents are absent. Halin has a beautiful tenor, and Frye’s strong voice slides between the recounting of the events of the day and a lullaby.

Frye also shines in “Cleanin’ Women,” staged as a 1960s girl group complete with broom-wielding backup singers. Frye sings effortlessly of how her character doesn’t want her daughter to join her in the long line of faceless and underappreciated women who clean our messes.

In “Joe,” Phil Kriley plays a retiree with a showman’s verve who recounts the events of his day in an attempt to stay busy without the structure and meaning of work imposed upon his life. It’s a lovely counterpoint to the show’s focus on those still in the workforce.

Ken Smith gets the first and last words of the show as iron worker Mike Dillard. In his final solo number, Smith’s soaring voice suffuses the song “Fathers & Sons” with a wistfully emotional performance.

There’s not a single weak moment in the show. Through powerful storytelling, memorable songs and innovative staging, MTG’s production of “Working” captures the overwhelming emphasis on jobs in a culture where the first words out of our mouths when meeting someone is, “What do you do for work?”

“Working” takes the stage at the William A. Lehnerd Performance Hall in Butler Memorial Park at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays from June 21 to 29 and at 3 p.m. Sunday, June 23. Tickets are available at mtgbutler.org.

“Working: The Musical” contains adult language and situations. Fog and haze effects are used in the production, and it runs 95 minutes with no intermission.

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