“Welcome to PeoplePower, the world’s largest temporary employment agency.”
This is one of the first lines of Temps! The Musical!, the final production of Mercury Players Theatre’s season, and it is chilling. Hearing the mechanical tone of the corporate speak, enunciated by women whose smiles are a little too forced, the audience immediately knows this corporation is up to no good.
It was easy to demonize temp agencies 1997, when Temps! was originally penned. The tough economy meant businesses were afraid to expand and there was an abundance of college grads who would take any job at all to try to make their rent. And actually, it’s easy to demonize them today in our gig economy where companies can get away with hiring a highly skilled workforce during crunch times, without having to provide benefits, health insurance, or any notice when their services are no longer needed.
Once Temps! co-creators Catherine Capellaro and Andrew Rohn establish that PeoplePower is run by the dark lords of corporate America, they introduce us to the struggling heroes of our musical tale — the mostly 20-somethings who are trying to find any job that pays more than manning the drive-through window at a fast food place. After all, they’ve got student loans to worry about and lives to begin!
But it turns out McDonald's would have been preferable to the jobs PeoplePower lines up — including a costumed character giving out diarrhea-inducing cracker samples, a girl Friday who almost burns down her office after fiddling with defective computer equipment, and a cookie taster who couldn’t leave the factory for lunch even if she still had an appetite. Of course the temp gigs do turn out to be better than signing up for medical testing, as Eddie (Asiah Doyle) finds out the hard way.
After enduring all these indignities, our band of would-be workers winds up back at the agency. In what seems like a stroke of luck, all of them land a three-month stint at the same non-profit organization. They have to wear suits, but the pay is good. What could go wrong?
Well, the only place more evil than PeoplePower turns out to be their new employer — the right wing think tank, The Freedom Institute. This dastardly propaganda machine is convincing dim-witted conservatives that their prejudices and ignorant presumptions were correct all along. Poverty is genetic! Welfare queens are defrauding the taxpayers! Marijuana is a gateway drug and trickle-down economics is a great plan! Add in collusion between the CEO of PeoplePower, and the founder of the Freedom Institute — who is also a Senator! — and the kids have got to find a way to stop them, and their nefarious legislation that will bust unions!
Yes, it’s depressing that part of the doomsday scenario in this show has actually come to pass. And yes, somebody ought to do something to stop all these injustices! But I doubt that this musical, which is part agit prop theater, part old fashioned melodrama, and part Scooby Doo episode, is going to do it. With plot points that alternate between obvious and illogical, it’s easy to stop caring about the fate of our young friends because, well, the bad guys are ridiculously bad, the good guys are ridiculously good, and we all know how this is going to end. It’s not clever enough to be stinging social satire and the production values aren’t good enough to make it a fun, absurd romp.
While the songs are tuneful, the earnest chorus has trouble selling them, both vocally and through their apparently-too-difficult choreography. Instead of energizing the scenes, each new number bogs down the show. Soloists fare better, with Kathy Groat turning in a solid performance in her musical pep-talk, “How Hard Could It Be?” and Shaniqua “Nikko” Murphy giving it her all in the desperate anthem, “Can’t Stop Now.” But since it’s impossible to take any of the show seriously, it’s actually hard to tell if the finale, “New Song,” is celebrating the heroes’ triumph, or if it’s lambasting songs about hope.
Fans of Capellaro and Rohn’s later hit, Walmartopia, will enjoy the same kind of David and Goliath battle and some of the same silliness found in Temps! Others may want to skip this and watch Les Miserables on Netflix instead. Or go to YouTube and look up the Les Miz flashmob that brought much of the Madison theater community to the capitol dome to sing in protest of Governor Walker’s Act 10 back in 2011.