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Backbone of America

Laughs and tears in Knock 'em Dead musical Working

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Working, running weekends through May 7 at the Knock 'em Dead Dinner Theatre, offers incredible harmonies and ensemble singing, and a message (after ample laughter and drama), that cuts through the airy persiflage and sensationalism of today's news to depict the heart of any country-its workers.

The unusual show starts slowly, with everyone dressed in black. The stage is bare except for a few different size cubes or boxes. The overture has a heavy sound, like machinery pumping or trains chugging, but it sucks you into its flow, and the talented cast takes over from there. It's quickly evident there's no traditional plot, hero or love story. This is a story of life-many lives-and anyone watching who has worked for a living will identify with one or more characters and be swept into the panorama of labor our country depends upon.

The show is based on radio announcer Studs Terkel's popular book, Working, and consists of real interviews performed as monologues, with people of every class, from cleaning women and factory folk to cubical personnel, teachers and executives. With powerful performances, the actors suck you into each story, building a complex structure revealing the unsung stories of the workers who keep America growing.

After a hearty meal of chef salad, slow braised pot roast with mashed potatoes and gravy, buttered broccoli and cauliflower florets, buttered rolls and of course apple pie with whipped cream at intermission, you feel immersed in the no-frills, substantial fare of your ancestors. The cast of nine seems more like dozens as each performer, using small accessories such as a cap, an apron or a jacket and varying accents, becomes a different person.

Michelle Casella Bass is dazzling as a spunky, sassy waitress, even doing a Carmen-like dance while serving customers and telling her story of pride in her work. This is the theme throughout the show, from Brent Jones as an ironworker walking the steel beams in the city's sky, to Ken Elliott as the expert parking attendant or his stone cutter who even dreams about stone. David Scott's depiction of a retired worker is heart wrenching, and among the excellent characters created by Michael Case, his brilliant dramatic cop-turned-fireman monologue provokes sympathy pains.

Leta Neustaedter, whose elegant appearance belies her cleaning woman job, echoes all our dreams in her beautiful rendition of a song hoping for a better life for her daughter. Cynthia Tank touches a nerve as the down-to-earth teacher reflecting on the lamentable changes over the years in schools and teaching. From her whiz of a supermarket checker to a defiant hooker, Brittany Ellert proves an exceptional singer and actress. And John McCrostie gives a stirring performance as a bag boy in a market and migrant worker singing of a better day to come.

These are only a few of the memorable workers who tell their stories via word and song in Working. They build our roads, bridges and skyscrapers; they work with their hands, their wits and their muscle. They're raising our children, cleaning our buildings, delivering our goods and they're "just" housewives, clerks, firemen or teachers. But they are the inspiring backbone of America, struggling to make a living and keep America working.

Working, the musical, directed by Scott Beseman

At the Knock 'em Dead Dinner Theatre, 333 S. 9th St., Boise

From the book by Studs Terkel; adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Fasco

Runs weekends through May 7

Thursday: 7 p.m., show only, $15.50 general; $12.50 students and seniors

Friday and Saturday: dinner at 6:30, show at 8 p.m.; dinner and show $34.50; show only tickets $17.50 sold at door.

Dinner tickets should be purchased at Select-a-Seat at least 24 hours in advance

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