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THEATER REVIEW : Theatre West Tries to Update 'Working'


First produced in the late 1970s, "Working" is Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso's musical adaptation of Studs Terkel's best-selling oral history about the American work force. As evidenced by the Colony Studio Theatre Playhouse's capable but shopworn production a year ago, the show has not aged gracefully.

Now, by interspersing snippets from Terkel's more recent book "The Great Divide," Theatre West attempts to drag this musical into the '90s.

In Theatre West's version, women are more visible in traditionally "masculine" jobs. Instead of a woman secretary and an editor, we now see women brokers. Alongside the telephone operator, the teacher and the domestic, a woman copywriter has been added.

It's a nice attempt but, by and large, the modernization takes place on the surface. A completely new, non-musical scene, in which an airline pilot and his stewardess wife quarrel over their unions' opposing positions, seems tacked on, a token update. Try as it may for a bleached cotton '90s look, the production's effect is frayed polyester.

A dynamic cast, however, manages to stretch the material into a seamless evening of entertainment. Whereas the Colony's production featured over a dozen actors, Theatre West has scaled down the ensemble to an engaging cast of five--Victor Gardell, Mark Austin, Michele Mais, Valri Jackson and Mary Garripoli. Granted, when the performers wander too far out of their age ranges, the result strains believability. Despite these lapses, the performers have plenty of heart, along with powerhouse voices that blend nicely.

Director Ellen Rooney, who also choreographed, makes up in invention what she lacks in production values. In "Brother Trucker," an actor on roller skates bearing flashlight "headlights" punctuates the rhythm of James Taylor's music. Musical director Philip Orem provides versatile accompaniment, although his small combo occasionally threatens to overwhelm the actors' voices.

And some of these numbers do span the decades. Gardell's turn as a migrant worker activist is particularly wrenching. Garripoli's wistful rendition of Craig Carnelia's "Just a Housewife" builds to a passionate crescendo, as does Mais' mill worker's lament. Whereas the outlook for the white-collar corporate worker may have shifted dramatically in recent decades, the perspectives from the field and factory remain much the same. As this production emphasizes, for the blue-collar worker, the drudgery of daily toil is constant, a wearying struggle for survival on the other side of an increasingly great divide.

* "Working," Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, near Universal City. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends June 11. $15. (213) 466-1767. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

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