ABET opened its 24th season Labor Day weekend with the musical “Working,“ which will be on stage through September 20, 2015 at the Adel Grage Community Center in Atlantic Beach. For more information, visit www.abettheatre.com.

It’s finally happened!! A play has been written about YOU! That’s right, YOU, the one reading this review! “Wait a minute,” you protest, “what do you mean about me?” But the play is about you, as we are sure that you work or have worked for a living sometime in your life, and this musical is just about that – about workers and working.

In the 1970s, the remarkable Studs Terkel wrote a book called “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.” The book, a compilation of interviews with dozens of working people, was adapted into a musical by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso. After a short run in Chicago in 1977, it opened on Broadway in 1978 with a large cast and far too many songs and did not do well. In 1982, an adaptation was broadcast by PBS as part of the American Playhouse series, and the show later did find an audience in settings throughout the country. It was updated and revived in 2012 in New York, and this revision is the version ABET is presenting.

The musical has some fourteen songs and almost two dozen scenes during the two-hour show (with intermission). Please note, there is (limited) adult language. The show has no plot but does have a theme: workers and their jobs.

Almost every occupation you can imagine is mentioned, from office workers to construction laborers. The revised version has been updated from the original to replace jobs that are obsolete with those currently available to workers. For example, newsboys have been replaced by delivery drivers; additionally, unemployed and retired workers have been added to the script.

Working 01

The show is directed by Rick DeSpain, award-winning actor and director in Jacksonville since 1982. He most recently directed a highly acclaimed production of “Clybourne Park” at the 5 & Dime Theatre. DeSpain’s next big directing project is related to his full-time position as a drama teacher at LaVilla School of the Arts. The school will be staging “The Lion King” in November, which is open to the public. With “Working” DeSpain has given local theatre another distinguished production and has cast eleven actors who bring vibrancy and intensity to their performances.

The opening of the show and the end of each act has the entire cast on stage singing inspired songs. Each performer appears in several roles over the course of the evening and each has the opportunity to “solo,” while singing or emoting dramatic or humorous dialogue.

The cast is a wonderful blend of ages and talents. Alix Bond, a very active actress in local musical theatre, is at her best in a song called “Millwork,” where she is joined by the cast illustrating and singing about the repetitive boredom of their work.

Pherbia Engdahl, whom we recently enjoyed seeing as Mrs. Sowerberry in “Oliver” at the Northeast Florida Conservatory, was outstanding in her role as a teacher questioning her ability to handle today’s unruly young students.

Catherine Courtney, who has appeared at ABET in “One Man, Two Guvnors” and “The Children’s Hour,” was impressive early in the show as a company project manager dedicated to free market ideals.

Jesse Flach, who previously appeared in Romeo and Juliet at UNF, makes his debut at ABET and appears in several roles, including that of a fireman who gave up being a cop because of his fear of related violence ( this part, although written in the 70s, embodies today’s concerns and headlines). Flach has a heartwarming solo toward the end of show, entitled “Fathers and Sons.”

Caitlin Higginbotham, a Douglas Anderson School of the Arts freshman, makes her musical theatre debut in community theatre and was funniest as the delivery person for a fast food restaurant. We did not have this service available in the 70s!

Johnetta Howard drove down from her home in St. Marys, Georgia, to do this show. She is head of the drama department at Abundant Life Harvest Center in St. Marys. She contributed several roles, but our favorite was her singing as “Cleaning Lady,” who is determined to help her family members find options to a lifetime of domestic work.

Brian Johnson, a retired Air Force Colonial, lives with his family in Atlantic Beach, and we are hoping he will become a regular on ABET’s stage. We especially enjoyed two of his roles, first as an iron worker (with a great tan and muscles) and later as a brick mason who takes pride in his work. Did we mention he sings well too?

Jerry Redfield was the picture-perfect selection to play Joe, who sings about his retirement. Mr. Redfield has been very active in theatre over the years, and was seen most recently in “One Man, Two Guvnors” at ABET. He has a great voice and is currently retired.

Leslie Richart is well-known to musical theatre fans in Jacksonville, since she has been in so many shows and has a fabulous voice. She was excellent in two very different roles. She appeared first as a devoted stay-at-home-mom, who convinced us of the importance of her caring work through monologue and song. In contrast, she appeared later as a brash prostitute, who was dressed for the part and very funny. And she walked around the stage with a wiggle Mae West would envy.

Clayton Riddley, fresh from his role in Theatre Jacksonville’s summertime hit “Hairspray,” appeared as a truck driver in “Brother Trucker” and led a group of other male drivers in song as they rolled around the stage on wheeled chairs.

Sara Beth Sohn does not list any theatre credits in her playbill biography, but notes that she has studied at DIVA, Inc., a voice studio specializing in classical, opera, and musical theatre; she is obviously a seasoned performer. She received the most laughter from the audience with her hilarious rendition of the life of a restaurant waitress.

The Music Director, Shawn Pendry, teaches music at LaVilla. While this is his debut at ABET, he has both conducted and performed in musicals in other settings. He has given this musical revue a very notable style. Also on his musical team is Courtney Dantzler, a Stanton High School freshman, on keyboard, which she played impeccably.

The very busy and very talented Choreographer Cody Russell has added some subtle dance and stage movement to this cast which is on and off the stage constantly. Don’t expect any fancy frenzied big dance numbers, as it is not that kind of show. Lee Hamby as a set designer is always equal to an occasion and has designed with an open stage in mind, using chairs and tables than are taken on and off stage as needed. The walls are a mixture of brick and metal columns from floor to ceiling. No one is credited for the costumes and we would guess that the actors did their own thing with the approval of Director DeSpain. The Production Team also included Stage Manager Melanie Arden, Light Board Operator Eugene Stidfole, and Light and Sound Designer Bryan Frank.

And another reason to see this show:  The proprietor of The Bookmark, a well-known locally owned bookstore in Neptune Beach, is generously providing multiple copies of a graphic adaptation of Studs Terkel’s book to be awarded nightly to patrons!

“Working” may be one of the most unusual musicals you have ever seen, and is well worth your time. This is a musical where you leave feeLing the rhythms – and thinking about how they relate to your experiences of working – rather than humming the tunes.

Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom [email protected]


About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.