Re-invention is all the rage in Hollywood. But while celebrities may re-invent with calculated response to fickle public opinion, small theater companies in Los Angeles are often forced to re-invent on the fly as a tenet of survival. Re-group, re-evaluate, re-align to a mission. It’s all in a (99-seat theater) day’s work.
Case in point, after producing three critically-acclaimed seasons, then losing the lease to a karate school, the Production Company (TPC) re-located last year from Valley Village to Hollywood. It’s now taking on new directions and new players while moving into a year of “riskier plays.”
Working becomes the first musical in the company’s new space, receiving a Waiting for Lefty-style revamp as the group settles into its second year in residence at the Lex Theatre. August Viverito, co-artistic director and director of the Working revival, admits that finding something new for an LA audience isn’t the easiest task, but it constantly forces him to re-imagine what might at first seem familiar.
Working received its premiere at Chicago’s Goodman Theater in 1977 before transferring to Broadway in 1978. Adapted from the 1974 journalistic-style interviews of workers recorded by Studs Terkel, the book was crafted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso with music by Schwartz, James Taylor, Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Matt Landers, Graciela Daniele, Susan Birkenhead and Mary Rodgers.
“With the economy as it is and all the social/political arguments going on, I took another look at the play,” Viverito comments. “I thought there was a new way to look at this musical.”
Viverito’s vision for Working expresses the characters’ very personal motivations with a slant toward the relationship between one’s occupation and self-worth. Updated for 2012, some details are adjusted accordingly — such as computers where typewriters once sufficed — but Viverito hopes even the group numbers now speak to the solitary experience of the modern American workforce.
He’s also finding new ways to inject his vision with the extra space he has at the Lex, compared to the group’s previous quarters at Chandler Studio Theatre in Valley Village.
“When we had the Chandler we did our best to make it not matter and re-invent shows for a tiny stage,” Viverito says. The Production Company proved repeatedly that anything could be successfully produced on a small scale “so long as it was done well.” TPC mounted projects in its tight playing space normally seen only on larger stages””Amadeus (2010), Sweeney Todd (2009), Equus (2009), to name a few.
Many of those small-space productions garnered some of LA’s top honors for production and artistic achievement including two LA Drama Critics Circle Awards and an LA Weekly Award for 2009, with a total of 11 Ovation Award nominations and 13 LA Weekly nominations over the last three years.
When the Chandler’s lease was not renewed, the Production Company sought a new home and landed in the still cozy, albeit bigger-by-comparison Lex Theatre on the corner of Lexington and McCadden Place, just off Theater Row in Hollywood.
Since the move, Viverito talks about entering a “building phase” for the company. Fellow co-artistic director T L Kolman and Viverito used the move to re-invigorate the company with new talent and wisdom from seasoned Los Angeles actors.
TPC’s leaders — both of whom had also been associated with West Coast Ensemble and Attic Theatre (Viverito was WCE’s communications manager) — learned West Coast was experiencing changes of its own. Although still producing as a theater company, West Coast temporarily disbanded its acting membership as an entity.
“We reached out to that membership and gained some wonderful new people,” Viverito explains. “We’ve also been doing relatively comfortable plays until now. But this new group of people has definitely given us motivation to be braver again.”
When the decision to pursue Working was made, creating the production team had an easy first component — Richard Berent as the musical director. He had played the same role with TPC’s acclaimed Sweeney Todd in 2009, collaborating with director Derek Charles Livingston.
“I admire the dynamics of [Berent’s] style and his dedication to drilling the harmonies to perfection,” Viverito says. “This show sounds amazing because of him.”
Berent reciprocates respect for Viverito’s directing skill, as they make adjustments in tandem for their fresh take on the 30-year-old script. He also pinpoints the major differences between Working and his previous TPC experience.
“On Sweeney Todd I created pre-recorded tracks, which was a monumental job. I’m sure that’s part of why that show seemed to resonate while in a small space it didn’t overwhelm,” Berent says.Â “Working, because of the nature of it, is a little rougher show. We made the decision together that a live band would be better than polished tracks. The form is looser.”
The band, to be helmed by Berent throughout the run, is also made possible with the expanded real estate of TPC’s new playing space. Viverito believes the live music creates an additional charge to the performances because of its immediacy.
“It infuses a lot of passion that I hadn’t really thought about before,” he explains. “It’s something new that comes through now in the songs.”
Professing “great love” for the musicals of Sondheim, such as Sweeney Todd, and the attention to musical detail they demand, Berent also expresses a sense of release in the “more fun, less rigid” musical score of Working.
“[It’s] more in the pop arena…You can be more free, which captures the feeling of the piece,” Berent states. “That extends to how I work with the singers, as well”¦it’s less “˜You have to sing a G-sharp here.’ It’s more about, “˜How do you capture the mood here?’ It’s more about creating the style.”
With narrative scenes mixed in between musical numbers, the organic structure of the piece””also updated to a modern 90-minute running time””offers an homage to the spirit of the original Terkel writings. As a workers’ advocate, Terkel celebrated the spirit and travails of the working class, the good and the bad.
“It’s a wonderfully entertaining show, but it’s not a glitzy show. It’s about concerns that are not typical to the musical theater scene,” Berent says. He embraces the opportunity to present Working’s new relevance. “There’s lots of comedy, but it does not shy away from the serious side: career choices people make, feeling trapped in a job, the competitive nature of their job. It also doesn’t shy away from people who actually like their job.”
The Working cast includes Broadway alum and TPC’s Sweeney Todd award nominee Kurt Andrew Hansen along with Lane Allison, Michael D’Elia, Margaret Dwyer, Harmony Goodman, Randy Wade Kelley, Larry Lederman, Judy Nazemetz, Pamela Taylor, and Michael Zemenick.
“Ninety percent of the show works for any generation, but certain jobs go out of style or become antiquated,” Berent comments. Updating the show to reflect today’s economy of recovering housing markets and Occupy protestors was intuitive. “The body of the show is pretty timeless. It’s something every generation has to bring to life in its own way.”
“The play may or may not be the play we intend it to be,” Viverito sums up. “But it wouldn’t be something we would want to do if we couldn’t make it say something more that relates to us now.”
Working presented by the Production Company. Opens tonight. Plays Fri-Sat 8 pm; Sun 3 pm. No performance Sunday, Mar 18. Through May 6. Tickets:Â $34. The Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Avenue, Hollywood. 800-838-3006. www.theprodco.com.
Working photos by T L Kolman.