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Joint high school musical spotlights America’s working class

Park Rapids and Menahga drama students have partnered to create a full-scale musical production of "Working," based on Studs Terkel's best-selling book. Four performances will be held at the Park Rapids High School auditorium Thursday, Oct. 22 through Saturday, Oct. 24. (Shannon Geisen / Enterprise)1 / 2
Stage Director Juliann Kjenaas and Music Director Brian Hobson. (Shannon Geisen / Enterprise)2 / 2

The Park Rapids High School drama department’s first-ever musical production is also a first-ever collaboration with Menahga High School.  About 40 students, from grades 9-12, comprise the cast and crew of “Working.”  Juliann Kjenaas from Park Rapids serves as director, with music director Brian Hobson from Menahga.  Performances are set for 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 22 through Saturday, Oct. 24 and 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 24.  The partnership is a win-win for both school districts.  Kjenaas was searching for a music director in order to do a full-scale musical.  Hobson was in need of theater space because Menahga’s gymnasium is in continual use for sports.

“The timing was just right for this. It’s a huge benefit for Menahga students,” he said. “I wanted my kids to have a facility to do a show.”  The reaction?  “Oh, they love it. They are already asking if we’ll collaborate for all shows this year,” Hobson said. “I told them, ‘No, we have to do the one-act play on our own, so they better start looking for a place to rehearse.’”  Kjenaas is also thrilled with the joint effort.  “It’s a huge addition to have Menahga students,” she said, adding her drama students have wanted to do a musical for years.  “I’ve always told them, ‘It’s expensive and a lot of work,’” Kjenaas said.  

By pooling each district’s resources and finances, a musical is finally possible.  “There are very strong actors on stage,” Kjenaas said. “I’ve never seen a group work so hard.”  Rehearsals have been compressed into an intense, 6-week schedule.

 Both directors are hoping to make this an annual musical event, if the experiment goes well. The schools will evaluate the arrangement at the end of the year.  “Working” is a revised, 2012 version of the Tony-nominated Broadway musical. Based on Studs Terkel’s best-selling 1974 book, it paints a vivid portrait of the American workforce.  Terkel was a Pulitzer Prize-winning oral historian who compiled books of interviews with everyday people.  “Working” is a musical documentary. The words spoken or sung were articulated by real people.   The updated version introduces songs and content relevant to the technology-filled world of today – quite different from that of the 1970s.  It includes new characters, monologues and songs addressing aspects of 21st century work life, such as outsourcing, technology, fast food, care-giving and fundraising.  In the course of “one 24-hour day,” the audience meets and hears the stories of various workers – from cleaning lady, UPS man and corporate executive to school teacher, millworker and trucker.  “Working” was adapted by Stephen Schwartz, who wrote “Wicked,” “Pippin” and “Godspell.” The show includes a variety of musical styles, including songs by James Taylor and noted composers Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Lin Manuel Miranda and Mary Rodgers.  

The hopes, dreams, joys and concerns of the average working American are the focus of this down-to-earth musical.  The high school production is receiving help from community organizations, providing costumes and set pieces, Kjenaas said.  Michael Dagen of the Nemeth Art Center is providing sound engineering services. This is the first time the drama department will be using microphones.  The pit orchestra features piano, bass, drums and guitar. Cheryl Steinborn and Gary Stennes, along with a few students, are accompanying.  Students can attend the performances for free.

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