An updated, gorgeously high-tech version of Stephen Schwartz’s pre-“Wicked” 1978 musical, based upon Studs Terkel’s groundbreaking collection of essays of the same name, has premiered in Chicago. Terkel, a diehard Chicagoan, is best remembered for his honest oral histories of common Americans. Back in 1974, Terkel’s collection of interviews recorded the dreams, duties and dynamics of the everyday worker. Schwartz then teamed with James Taylor, Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant and other composers to set many of these stories to music. But this new musical production is a streamlined, 21st century version that is at once informative, hilarious and touching.
The original production featured a cast of 17 and tried to cover too much material. It was also considered overly sentimental by many critics. The current production is a fast-paced 100 minutes performed without intermission by six talented Chicago actors all playing multiple roles, often transforming before our eyes onstage. And while much of the new material evokes laughter there are moments guaranteed to bring a tear.
Two veterans from Chicago’s “Wicked” add maturity and realism to this production. Gene Weygandt, known for his role as the Wizard, awakens memories as a retiree and later as an iron worker singing the poignant, “Fathers and Sons.” Weygandt’s characters are as honest and gritty as life itself. Another “Wicked” veteran, Barbara Robinson also finds truth and pathos as a schoolteacher singing “Nobody Tells Me How,” and as a proud waitress singing “It’s an Art.” E. Faye Butler is the real deal giving life to Maggie, the cleaning lady, Kate, the housewife and Roberta, the prostitute. Emjoy Gavino, Michael Mahler and Gabriel Ruiz inject their youthful spirit and enthusiasm into a production that makes work seem fun.