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Songs by Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead, Stephen Schwartz, and James Taylor

Directed by Eric D. Schaeffer

At Signature Theatre to Dec. 7

Camping With Henry & Tom

By Mark St. Germain

Directed by Kathy Feininger

At Carroll Hall to Nov. 30

If Eric Schaeffer isn’t careful, he’s going to get a call from David Merrick one of these days offering him a grant to mount Mata Hari while he’s meeting with Andrew Lloyd Webber about a Whistle Down the Wind revival. The mantle of Musical Mr. Fix-It appears to sit lightly on the young director’s shoulders at present, but how can that last?

Already his roster of directing triumphs resembles a commercial box-office dishonor roll. At Signature Theatre, he has breathed new life into such Sondheim flops as Passion and Assassins, allowed the lovely but neglected Wings to take flight, and worked many of the kinks out of Kander and Ebb’s roller-skating disaster The Rink. Two months ago, he turned Big from a bloated Broadway loser into a lean, efficient road hit. He’ll tackle London’s underappreciated The Fix later this season, and as I write this he’s in Chicago working on Elmer Gantry, a tuner that has failed to come together in more cities than many successful shows even play.

As if any further proof were needed that Schaeffer knows his way around wayward musicals, he has now found a way to make Stephen Schwartz’s Working work…or at any rate, work better than it did on Broadway. The 1978 flop—essentially a musical revue based on Studs Terkel’s book of interviews with truckers, masons, maids, carhops, hustlers, and other working stiffs—expired after just 25 performances on the Great White Way. Signature’s version, nestled in Arlington’s warehouse district, among car shops and construction equipment storage lots, shouldn’t have any trouble lasting longer than that. It’s too stylized and showbiz-savvy to actually connect with its environs, but it certainly benefits from proximity to a working-class world. Lou Stancari’s artfully rough-hewn setting seems a plausible found object in a way it never could behind a proscenium in one of the city’s more established theaters.

As is the director’s habit, the show has been stripped to essentials. Where once it had a cast of 17—including such soon-to-be-famous chorus kids as Patti LuPone and Bob Gunton (who clicked a year later in Evita), Lenora Nemetz, Lynne Thigpen, and Joe Mantegna—it now has just nine performers who double and triple in various assembly and chorus lines as the evening progresses. To raise the show’s theatrical quotient, nonmusical material has been cut drastically—if it doesn’t sing, it no longer exists—so that two and a half sluggish hours of dialogue and song have been slimmed down to 90 intermissionless minutes of singing and brisk transitions. A note in the program chronicles how the march of time helped in the winnowing of material. Some jobs have become obsolete in the last 20 years; others have been altered enough that their original numbers had to be retrofitted with new lyrics. An elementary-school teacher (Patricia Pearce Gentry) who’s struggling to keep up with the times now complains of “spell check” making her students lazy. A supermarket cashier mimes sliding items past a scanner, where once her vignette was all about the rhythm of punching a cash register.

But the biggest improvement is the infusion of intimacy that’s become a Signature Theatre hallmark. From what I remember, the original Broadway production, which was staged by Schwartz himself (he’d evidently earned the right to get in over his head after writing music and lyrics for Pippin, Godspell, and The Magic Show), looked and felt like an industrial show. The title was spelled out in enormous letters hung on stagewide scaffolding over which the performers sometimes clambered. Other times, they stood stock still on sliding platforms that moved them back and forth mechanically. In New York, the evening was all about creating a grand American panoply of employment—an assembly line of workplace stories. At Signature, the only nod to production values is a screen above the actors’ heads on which slides are projected to give context. The show is now about listening to what its individuals are saying.

And of course, how they’re saying it. The songs were written by Schwartz and a number of pop composers, including James Taylor, who contributed a long-haul ditty called “Brother Trucker” and a haunting farmworkers’ lament (plaintively handled by Juan Rivera, making his professional debut). Micki Grant let rip with a bluesy boast for a carhop (Frederick Strother) and a doo-wop number for a cleaning lady (full-voiced Monica Pège) determined that her daughter will never do domestic work.

Craig Carnelia has the anthemic concession locked up tight with a show-closing march about every worker’s need for “Something to Point To” and with a singularly aggressive melody that turns Donna Migliaccio’s misery about being “Just a Housewife” into something more than a cliché. The composer also came up with a nifty patter song about retirement that Larry Redmond undersells to the rafters that are so very near his head. Schwartz’s melodies are more conventionally Broadway, which is not to suggest that they’re ineffective. Presumably, the economy of Working’s shorter book is also his doing.

Now, has all this work recreated Working as a musical-comedy smash? Not really. Like any plotless revue, the show can’t build from one number to the next. Each song starts at zero, with the only cumulative impressions being created by the cast. And here, since the performers must shift jobs, accents, and emotional backgrounds in every scene, they don’t even get to hold onto one personality from number to number, which puts them at an added disadvantage. About the most you can ask is that they be entertaining in individual bursts, which they are, which is why Working is now working…better.

Playwright Mark St. Germain sets out with history at his back in Camping With Henry & Tom and then wanders off to get lost in woods of his own making. This takes some doing, as he has planted all the trees in rigidly straight lines.

The author begins with fact—a 1921 camping trip in which president Warren G. Harding joined Henry Ford and Thomas Edison in tramping through some Maryland woods—and imagines what these famous men might have talked about if they’d been alone, rather than accompanied by staff, press, and all manner of hangers-on. As a device, this amounts to playwriting-by-numbers—why not Brunch With Henry & Tom, with Nixon, Kissinger, and Brokaw?—but similar strategies have been known to yield intriguing results. Tom Stoppard, for instance, managed to make much in Travesties of the fact that Lenin, James Joyce, and dadaist Tristan Tzara were once simultaneously in Zurich.

Alas, St. Germain is no more Stoppard than his subjects are sparkling conversationalists, so the woodsy chitchat in Camping tends toward the predictable. Ford talks about his son Edsel and the glories of harnessing hydroelectric power, Edison about aging and his problems with the patent office, Harding about the wife he doesn’t love and the politics he’d love to abandon. Wish you’d been there?

Actually, there’s more to the evening than that, but it mostly takes the form of historical footnotes. For patrons who don’t know that Ford was anti-Semitic and coveted the presidency, or that Harding had nervous breakdowns on his way to the White House and an illegitimate child once there, the dialogue will hold some surprises. But they’re not of a dramatic sort.

Washington Stage Guild has mounted the evening prettily, with much foliage in the corners and dirt and twigs scattered about. And Kathy Feininger’s staging manages to make most of what the actors are doing reasonably persuasive, even the plugging into the forest’s floor of a supposedly kerosene-powered stove. Conrad Feininger (the director’s husband) plays Ford with Robert Prestonish bluster, riding roughshod over consonants and common courtesy as he bullies Terry Wills’ salt-o’-the-earth Harding. They’re best in a scene where the car maker is trying to blackmail Harding with a scandal his researchers have uncovered, only to have the eager-to-resign president offer him three more on a platter. “I’d look like a cripple-kicker,” complains Ford. “One scandal’s enough. Any more, they’d never get it right.”

J.M. McDonough’s raspily amusing Edison gets to sit out their arguments and take potshots from the sidelines, by far the evening’s best assignment. As elder statesman (he was in his 70s when the camping trip took place), he’s allowed to look good even when the author’s jokes fall flat. “It’s all right,” he says on one such occasion, “most of my inventions don’t work either.”

Still, neither he nor anyone else on the premises can turn Camping With Henry & Tom from a historical diorama into a historical drama.CP