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Superb ‘Working’ explores what we do, who we are



♦ Through June 5

♦ Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut

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Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

‘So what do you do?”

As we are reminded in “Working,” the musical inspired by Studs Terkel’s revealing 1974 book of oral history — now at the Broadway Playhouse in a winningly reimagined, enhanced and fully engaging new production ­— that is the crucial, ever-present question we Americans ask each other. And the answers invariably are tightly entwined with matters of ego, identity, legacy and self-worth (every bit as much as net worth), especially in our current economic times.

Adapted and gently updated by Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked!”) and Nina Faso, this edition of “Working” comes with fresh, clever, richly animated direction by Gordon Greenberg; a superb cast; an ingenious use of M.C. Escher-like projections of office cubicles, and two charming new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda (“In the Heights”) appended to the zesty, often-poignant existing list that includes work by Schwartz, James Taylor, Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead. A spirited, life-affirming production, it not only pays subtle homage to Studs, the Chicago icon, but also to the “work” of theater, for which he was a lifelong enthusiast.

The new conceit that binds together the show’s many episodic elements has everything to do with both those things. Beowulf Boritt’s two-level industrial set gives us the dressing rooms of the show’s six performers, and we are reminded that actors are tremendous physical laborers as well as artists who can magically transform themselves. In addition, an opening setup puts Studs’ reel-to-reel tape recorders (the essential tool of his trade) in full view. The songwriter’s “job” also is beautifully spotlighted here, with each concise verse capturing a character, actual workaday duties and plenty of attitude.

While James Taylor’s “Millwork” remains the score’s great gem (with a gorgeous rendering by the stellar Emjoy Gavin as a felt processor in a luggage factory), Schwartz’s well-known “It’s an Art” is revealed as pure caviar by Barbara Robertson as the waitress who’d be a star at any table. (Robertson also nails Rod­gers and Birkenhead’s honest portrait of aging schoolteacher Rose Hoffman.)

Carnelia’s bittersweet ode, “Just a Housewife,” is touchingly rendered by E. Faye Butler, who can just as easily play a flamboyant hooker. And his “Joe,” about a man uneasy in retirement (Gene Weygandt is brilliant here, and also as a press agent and ironworker), as well as his “The Mason” (lovingly portrayed by Michael Mahler), also are finely polished.

Miranda’s new songs are a seamless fit, with the wholly charming Gabriel Ruiz and Gavino, as caregivers for kids and the aged, singing “A Very Good Day” in Spanish and Filipino.

It’s a very good show, too.

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