A new revival of the 1978 musical failure ‘Working’ almost works

Marie-France Arcilla in 'Working.' (Richard Termine)
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Lin-Manuel Miranda hadn't been born yet when the Broadway musical Working closed after just three weeks on Broadway back in 1978.

But the songs he wrote for a scaled-down version, which opened this week at the 59E59 Theaters, feel like they've been there all along.

Scratch that: Miranda's work outshines that of many of the theatrical heavyweights who contributed to the original, including Stephen Schwartz (who at that point was on a roll with Godspell and Pippin), Micki Grant (Your Arms Too Short to Box with God), and Mary Rodgers (Once Upon a Mattress). Miranda's songs, the rapid-fire "Delivery" and the gentle, moving "A Very Good Day," are two very good reasons to snag a ticket to this off-Broadway revival.

Based on a 1974 bestseller of the same name by Studs Terkel, Working chronicles the lives of several dozen average joes struggling to make ends meet. You had your waitress slinging hash, the cleaning lady emptying garbage cans, and the stone mason proud that he has "something to point to" when he's asked what he does for a living. If it sounds a bit pretentious—well, it was. It was also big and bloated. And despite the presence of soon-to-be stars like Patti LuPone and Joe Mantegna singing their hearts out, the generic show tunes that made up most of the score didn't really connect with audiences.

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Produced by Prospect Theater Company, this much-revised version of Working has been whittled down to a reasonable size. The two acts have been compressed into one, and the cast of 17 now numbers just six. The show has been updated to reflect the changes in the labor force in the last 40 years, so the business executive is now a hedge-fund manager and the telephone operator has become a tech support worker. Even the hooker is now referred to in the program as a prostitute.

Director Gordon Greenberg, who is also credited with "additional contributions" to the original book by Schwartz and Nina Faso, eases us into the show with cleverness, by acknowledging that the cast and the crew are also on the clock. As we watch the actors chatting among themselves (Beowolf Boritt's minimalist set gives a clear view of the backstage area), we hear the stage manager begin to call the light and sound cues.

Does Working finally work? The show's flaws are still apparent. Many of the painfully earnest songs by Schwartz and his collaborators travel predictable paths: the housewife is lonely, the teacher is frustrated, the long-distance trucker prefers life on the road to the problems at home. The attempts at humor feel forced, such as when a waitress waxes rhapsodic about waiting tables in "It's An Art."

But a couple of numbers rise above the rest. "Millwork," by singer-songwriter James Taylor, zeros in on the details in the life of a straight-talking assembly-line worker at a suitcase factory. We feel the steam hissing from the machinery every 40 seconds, feel the arthritis crippling her hands and shoulder, and understand her worries about the three kids she's raising alone. In a show about "real" people, she's one of the few who appears to be made of flesh and bone. Marie-France Arcilla sings the part beautifully, and imbues the character with sadness and dignity.

Arcilla changes gears completely in "A Very Good Day," where she's called upon to play a soft-spoken Filipino nanny. She's joined by Nehal Joshi as an Indian elder-care worker, both deriving small pleasures from doing the jobs that "no one wants to do." Once again, it's the details, such as the nanny's whispered lullaby in Tagalog, that makes this song so moving.

The young cast does a great job of moving back and forth between 26 different characters with the help of simple but evocative costumes by Mattie Ullrich. Besides Arcilla and Joshi, I particularly liked Kenita R. Miller, who plays a maid in "Cleanin' Women" and a stay-at-home mom in "Just a Housewife." Donna Lynne Champlin ably handles most of the character roles, including a teacher who has difficulty handling today's students in "Nobody Tells Me How." Joe Cassidy and Jay Armstrong Johnson don't score any of the evening's better songs, but they bring a sense of dignity to their characters.

The Prospect Theater Company's production of Working is running at the 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, through December 30. Tickets, which are $45, are available at 212-279-4200 or at www.59e59.org.