2011-09-08 / Dining & Entertainment

‘Working’ based on interviews

Play Review
By Cary Ginell

BAD DAY AT THE OFFICE—The cast of “Working” expresses angst during the production at Hillcrest Center for the Arts. BAD DAY AT THE OFFICE—The cast of “Working” expresses angst during the production at Hillcrest Center for the Arts. In these times of dwindling funds for the arts, there is cause for celebration whenever a new theater company is born.

Panic! Productions is the latest unit, formed by Paul Panico and Robert Weibezahl, two local actors and singers whose lengthy credits prove that they are no novices when it comes to theater.

With ties to many other performers in the Conejo Valley, Panico and Weibezahl have mounted their first musical production, Stephen Schwartz’s “Working,” a celebration of the American workforce, which is being staged at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts in a three-week run bookending Labor Day weekend.

“Working” is based on Studs Terkel’s 1974 book of interviews with Americans of different regions and occupations. The show has a checkered history in Broadway lore, famously going on for only 24 performances before being shelved in 1978 but thriving in regional productions ever since.

It opens with the assembled cast quoting Walt Whitman’s famous line, “I Hear America Singing,” from “Leaves of Grass,” which is followed by a series of vignettes spotlighting individual workers talking and singing about their professions.

Panico and Weibezahl have chosen an exemplary cast featuring veterans and newcomers from the local scene.

The spoken testimony of the workers is taken directly from Terkel’s interviews while the songs were written by a consortium, among them James Taylor and Mary Rodgers.

The moods in the various vignettes range from whimsical to poignant.

Schwartz ingeniously interconnects many of the vignettes by overlapping their characters’ appearances.

As an example, Babe, a supermarket checker (Suzanne Mayes), explains how her job entails using every part of her body while singing “I’m Just Movin’.” Her bag boy, Roberto (Alex Matute), then movingly laments the hardships of growing up as a farmworker.

Dan Tullis Jr. exhibits a powerful voice as Al Callinda, a parking lot attendant, singing the bluesy “Lovin’ Al,” in which he boasts about being able to handle any vehicle that comes his way.

As firefighter Tom Patrick, Tullis also exhibits pride in the number of lives he has saved. This is also the motivating device for mason Anthony Coelho (Paul Panico), who is proud of the longevity of the structures he has built.

Not all of the workers take their jobs so seriously.

The marvelous David Sheftell portrays UPS delivery man Conrad Swibel, who enjoys the perks of his job (spying on sunbathing “babes”) but hates getting chased by dogs.

Sheftell has the makings of a young Jim Carrey with his pliable facial expressions; he is also very funny as an unctuous restaurant maitre d’ in a scene featuring Veronica Scheyving as a caustic waitress.

Scheyving also plays frustrated “old school” teacher Rose Hoffman, who bemoans the influx of non-English-speaking immigrants in her classroom.

Some of the best moments in the show involve workers who are trapped in mundane, unglamorous jobs. These include housewife Kate Rushton (Mona King), mill worker Grace Clements (Theresa Secor) and reluctant retiree Joe Zutty (Paul Panico).

In several scenes, the commentary by the workers is accompanied by a vocalist; the best of these are by Karen Sonnenschein (“Millwork” and the bagger’s lament, “Un Mejor Dia Vendora”) and Kenny Larsen (“Mason” and “Fathers and Sons,” the latter sung as a duet with Panico).

The capable three-piece orchestra is led by Susan Treworgy- Calkins with choreography by Mona King and vocal direction by Diann Alexander.

Panico and Weibezahl are to be congratulated on the launching of their new production company, and we look forward to future efforts.

“Working” plays through Sun., Sept. 11 at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts. Visit www.hillcrestarts.com or call (805) 381-2747.

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