Studs Terkel's 1972 Working is a national treasure, a slab of the Republic that captured the voice of proles and the bourgeois alike as they talked about their jobs. So to tinker with this, as Stephen Schwartz did in his 1978 musical adaptation of the collection of interviews, is like using the Constitution as a bib while eating ribs. The longtime songbook writer inexplicably Anglicized the surnames of some protagonists (memorable retiree Joe Zmuda becomes Joe Zutty, for instance), combined other profiles, and even created new characters such as Rex Winship, a slimy corporate executive who extols the virtues of the robber barons. Even worse, Schwartz heavily bowdlerized Terkel's extended dialogues, keeping out most of the hoi polloi's straight-talk that makes Working such an arresting read.
That said, Santa Ana College's current staging of Working is still impressive. The production starts under cover of darkness, as the sounds that once ran this country rise to a cacophonous crescendo. The ring of a cash register. The clang of a hammer. Steam whistles. Horns. Typing. Soon, the 23-member cast launches into "All the Livelong Day," a Chorus Line-like chant in which the workers demand that the world listen for the next two hours as they reveal their working lives.
The following 18 musical numbers at times distract from the scintillating monologues—when migrant worker Roberto Núñez (Daniel V. González) dramatically discusses his life as a strawberry picker then suddenly warbles about it in the sappier-than-a-maple "Un Mejor Día Vendrá" ("A Better Day will Come"), you're tempted to call la migra. And "Brother Trucker" (think Bachman Turner Overdrive handling a baby-food commercial) not only flops, but it also gives an unwelcome literalism to the terms "headlights" and "taillights" when a trio of honeys assuming the role of a big rig roller-skate across the stage while sporting the appropriate illumination on their breasts and butts.
But director Sheryl Donchey still gets delightfully surrealistic; the showstopper "It's an Art," featuring waitress Delores Dante (Melisa Cole) prancing around tables with a smile wider than the El Toro Y, is as whimsical as the finale in An American in Paris.
What ultimately saves Working from devolving into camp is an outstanding cast—each member channels Terkel's protagonists so that the minimal set design (only scaffolding and a couple of tables and chairs) doesn't prohibit you from experiencing their sweat and toil. And, to Terkel's credit, the words he recorded more than 30 years ago still resonate despite Schwartz's snipping and the cheesy songs. When Rose Hoffman (a schoolmarmish Harriet Whitmyer) rants about the influx of Latino students in her school—"I'm shocked that English is the second language," she nearly cries. "When my parents came over, I didn't learn Jewish as a first language at the taxpayers' expense. . . . As long as they're in this country, English should be the first language"—you forget that she's describing Puerto Rican kids in New York City circa 1970 instead of mimicking Santa Ana Unified School Board member Rosemarie Avila. Now that's staying power.
WORKING AT PHILLIPS HALL THEATER, SANTA ANA COLLEGE, 1530 W. 17TH ST., SANTA ANA, (714) 564-5661. THURS.-SAT., MARCH 11-13, 8 P.M.; SUN., 2:30 P.M. $8-$12.