The last time we saw a full production from Dallas Theater Center, it was their version of Little Women that ended its run on March 1, 2020. Like everyone else, they were forced to shut down all productions due to the pandemic, and for the last 16 months they’ve only been able to offer virtual or socially-distanced options.
At long last, they are back with Working: A Musical, running through July 18 at Annette Strauss Square.
As the venue indicates, though, things are not completely back to normal — this is an outdoor production instead of one taking place inside at the usual Wyly Theatre or Kalita Humphreys Theater. However, it features a cast with seven members of the Brierley Resident Acting Company – Blake Hackler, Liz Mikel, Alex Organ, Christopher Llewyn Ramirez, Molly Searcy, Tiffany Solano, and Sally Nystuen Vahle – performing on a large stage, utilizing a set with multi-tiered scaffolding that enables the actors to move about freely.
The concept of the musical, first performed in the late 1970s and updated in 2008 to include two songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, is relatively unique, as it contains no overarching story. Instead, it honors a variety of types of working people by telling their stories through songs. In addition to ones from Miranda, the musical features tunes from Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin, Wicked), James Taylor, Craig Carnelia, and Micki Grant.
Among the workers portrayed are a delivery driver, teacher, trucker, housewife, cleaning woman, and more. Each song extols the virtues of the different professions, as well as its challenges. In between songs, interviews with real local workers are played on video screens at the back of the stage, including a couple made up of two first responders: a nurse and a firefighter.
The production, directed by Brierley Resident Acting Company member Tiana Kaye Blair in her DTC directing debut, takes a bit of patience for anyone used to a musical with an actual story. While the theme of workers is strong throughout, there is nothing connecting one song to the next other than the actors portraying the different people. But the intention of the musical, and of Dallas Theater Center choosing it as their return to a full-scale production, resonates strongly even without characters to which the audience can connect.
The songs themselves, despite being penned by some Tony and Grammy Award winners, are not ones that match up with the best that Broadway has to offer. Miranda’s “Delivery” and “A Very Good Day” have very little of the memorable wordplay fans know from In the Heights or Hamilton, although the humor of “Delivery” is fun to see and hear. Other songs, like “Nobody Tells Me How,” “Brother Trucker,” and “Cleanin’ Women,” are more interesting for the performances of the actors than the lyrics they’re singing.
Viewing the production outdoors has its good and bad points for the audience. On the one hand, pleasant weather, nicely spaced boxes, and comfortable sand chairs on the lawn at Annette Strauss Square made for a good experience. But no matter how good the speakers were, the noise of traffic from nearby Woodall Rodgers Freeway and planes flying overhead provided unavoidable distractions. There were also some technical sound snafus, especially in the opening and closing group numbers, with singing from one actor’s microphone overwhelming the others.
Having the familiar faces of Dallas Theater Center actors back onstage is cause for celebration just by itself. While Working is not as strong as the company’s best work, it’s a nice precursor for their upcoming return to normal operations this fall.