Job well done

Once again, Saranac Lake’s nexus of music, theater, education and down-to-earth realism stunned me Thursday night.

It was the opening of “Working,” this year’s high school musical, which closes with tonight’s 7:30 p.m. performance. It’s great material, but it’s also astoundingly well executed by a well-coached cast of 37 students. It provokes thoughts, feelings and understanding in a way that feels essential. I’d recommend it to pretty much anyone in middle school or older.

You’d have to be a fairly serious student of musical theater to know about this ’70s gem beforehand, and vocal music teacher Drew Benware and Director Matt Sorenson had kept it on the down low until an interview with Enterprise reporter Tom Salitsky that we published Thursday. That article was all I knew about “Working” going in.

I had somehow gotten the impression that it would be about the labor movement, a notion reinforced as “Look for the Union Label” was piped through the PA before the opening. But the play had nothing to do with that. If unions are mentioned at all, I missed it. This was much bigger, more basic.

There’s really no better way to sum it up than the subtitle of the Studs Turkel book the musical is based on: “People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.” It’s a string of loosely connected vignettes in which one or more characters explains their job, how they do it, the pride and/or frustration it gives them, how it relates to their home life, and whatever else comes to mind.

Some of these characters love their jobs. Michael Monroe, playing an ironworker who builds skyscrapers, and Will Gray, as a lifelong parking valet, are confident about their skills. While Gray’s character is savvy about tips, waitress Elodie Linck cares little for them because she sees serving food as her artistic vocation. Antonio Villani’s stonemason is possessed by his meticulous, long-lasting work. Michael Cross’ firefighter character feels like he’s living every little boy’s dream. It’s dangerous, but saving lives brings out the best in him.

But many, perhaps most of the characters here are not so fulfilled by their careers. While cashier Abby Hunt feels right at home in the supermarket, the store reminds bagger Chaos Rexilius-Tuthill that customers have no clue where their food comes from. If he got rich, he says, he’d take them all to the fields where he grew up as a migrant worker.

“Working” shows the monotony and danger of a luggage factory, which is different from the monotony of a cubicle-filled office and from phone receptionists who sometimes pass time by listening in on people’s conversations. Karina Williams plays a cleaning woman who wants a better life for her daughter. Gray, in another automotive role, plays a trucker estranged from his family. Abbie Wolff plays a pragmatic office manager ambivalent about her employer and her career. Corrine Gambacurta plays a “working girl,” a hooker, who initially seems frank about making easy money but then stops talking as she’s reminded of repressed feelings.

Some of these monologues cut deep for me and, from what I could, tell, most of the audience. Natalie Orman’s soon-to-retire teacher knows she was once excellent but is now bitter, unable to keep up with changing education methods and demographics. She gripes about Latino students not adjusting to English as quickly as European immigrants of old did.

“Working” reaches still further to include unofficial work, life after work and work’s family implications. Matthew Keating shines as a retired bachelor, and Maeve Peer probably broke a lot of hearts as a housewife in a feminist era.

There are a lot of surprises in what comes out of these characters’ mouths, and that fresh realism – unburdened by plot, political agenda or even much of a message – is part of the show’s appeal.

The best part, though, is seeing that these high school students, many of whom I’ve seen grow up from elementary school, show us working adults in the audience that they appreciate working people in all their rich variety and complexity. They reflect back at us real people, not two-dimensional stereotypes. It shows maturity. It makes us grown-ups feel good about the generation that will soon join us in the workforce and eventually take our places.

People say this all the time, but it’s amazing enough to bear repeating: This area is blessed in music and theater, and even more so in music and theater education for our children. “Working” reminds of the people who make good things like this happen: people like Matt and Drew, but also Kent Streed, Bonnie Brewer and Katy Van Anden, who do costumes, lights and choreography, respectively, for all kinds of Tri-Lakes theater productions. There are also people (too many to name, but check the program) doing sets, sound, stage management and many other tasks. Plus, it took some pretty skilled folks to write “Working.” To them and all other hard workers, good job.

If you have a story idea for Peter Crowley’s Roving Reporter column, let him know at 518-891-2600 ext. 22 or pcrowley@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.