Two musicals are running on the eastside right now, and both of them are about people who create things with their hands. All right, that's stretching the point of the Gaslight Theatre show, a spoof of Frankenstein. More straightforward is what just opened by the Da Vinci Players: the mostly blue-collar musical called Working.
The show is adapted from a 1972 book for which Studs Terkel recorded dozens of people musing about the work they did. Later in the decade, it was turned into a concept musical by Stephen Schwartz, who was then fresh from triumphs as the composer of Godspell and Pippin; he is now best-known for Wicked. On Working, though, Schwartz has had a lot of help from his friends, especially as the show has continued to evolve, updating itself to accommodate the development of computers and barcode scanners.
Working is a series of monologues and songs featuring people from diverse walks of life, more hands-on types than executives. Some scenes, especially in the second act, end with a little transition to the next, but more often, some new character or ensemble simply takes the stage when the previous one leaves. In other words, the show has a choppy structure that has probably only gotten worse as scenes have been added and deleted through the years.
(I was sure that I'd seen a production of this by Arizona Theatre Company 20-some years ago, with linking narration by a Studs Terkel impersonator, but there's no evidence of this in ATC's online history. The version that I seem to be hallucinating held together better than the current incarnation.)
Since the inception of Working, five composers have contributed songs; there's a nice stylistic diversity here, from the blues-gospel numbers Micki Grant wrote for a parking-lot attendant and some cleaning ladies, to the more wistful contributions by Craig Carnelia, especially the lament he wrote for an unappreciated housewife (although his number for a bricklayer sounds too much like the soundtrack for some union PSA). Still, the most memorable contributions are by none other than James Taylor: choral numbers for truckers, millworkers and commuters caught in a traffic jam, and a tender Latin-American ballad for a fieldhand turned grocery-store bagger.
Da Vinci Players is an ensemble of mostly young actors, which means you can expect a lot of energy and commitment from these performances. The drawback is that some of the participants are just too young to be convincing. Still, a couple of the cast members have a few more years behind them, and although I don't know that Todd Luethjohann is yet eligible for AARP membership, he does a credible and poignant turn as a retiree.
There are 11 cast members in this production fluidly directed by Robert Encila (plus a fine two-piece band); the most knockout work comes from the soulful Regina Wills (one of Lisa Otey's Desert Divas), the versatile young Nicholas Gallardo, the accomplished and down-to-earth Maria Alburtus, and the confident and charismatic Jamie Pruden, a Sabino High School senior. If she's this good now, in five more years, she'll be dangerous.
The characters in Working may have their troubles and disappointments, but all in all, they take pride in what they do. So should the Da Vinci Players.
"Pride" is not the first word that comes to mind when the subject is the Gaslight Theatre, a company dedicated to the belief that any prideful character should undergo a pratfall. Gaslight's latest spoof is called Frankenstein Lives, or the Jolt's on You. It has less to do with the Mary Shelley novel than the 1930s Boris Karloff movies, and the gravest danger to a show like this is that Mel Brooks created the subject's definitive parody with the film Young Frankenstein.
To his credit, writer-director Peter Van Slyke has stitched together his own version without seeming at all beholden to Brooks (other than the thunderclaps whenever somebody says "house of Frankenstein," which calls to mind the horses' terror at the mention of Frau Blücher).
As in the Mel Brooks production, Gaslight follows youngish Victor Frankenstein (Todd Thompson) as he returns to his family estate, where some years before, his father angered the homeowners' association or the peasantry or whatever by allowing his unfinished science project (David Fanning) to roam about. The local burgomaster (Mike Yarema) dearly hopes that the creature is gone for good, to save his lovely, blind daughter (Tarreyn Van Slyke) from harm; his wife (Sarah Vanek) seems to have become slightly unhinged after the last episode. The village police inspector (David Orley), apparently an ancestor of Dr. Strangelove, has an ax to grind, although he can grind it with only one hand, the other having been lost in a confrontation with the monster. The evil Dr. Polvard (Armen Dirtadian, who could twirl a moustache merely with the sneer in his voice) and his hunchback assistant (Joe Cooper) somehow manage to persuade Victor to resume his father's work, to the distress of Victor's swooning fiancée (Deborah Klingenfus).
The story proceeds pretty much as you'd expect, aside from the eruption of musical numbers based on songs like "The Things We Do for Love" and, inevitably, "Stayin' Alive." If this isn't one of Van Slyke's more intricate shows, at least it's one of his best-paced, without a single limp moment. Part of the fun comes from watching the cast members trying to crack each other up; the night I attended, the men were ganging up on Thompson, an easy mark, who exacted revenge mainly on Fanning.
The concluding olio is a send-up of The Ed Sullivan Show, with Cooper doing a good impersonation of Sullivan when he can manage to stay in character; among the musical contributions, Vanek, Klingenfus and Tarreyn Van Slyke bringing the McGuire Sisters to life even better than the McGuire Sisters did.