A folk song is what’s wrong and how to fix it or it could be
who’s hungry and where their mouth is or
who’s out of work and where the job is or
who’s broke and where the money is or
who’s carrying a gun and where the peace is.
– Woody Guthrie
On the heels of its much praised landmark production of Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars, Dallas’ Theatre Three launched performances of a tribute to iconic American folksinger Woody Guthrie in the intimate Theatre Too space on June 19, 2009. Strong on tunes and light on biographical detail, Woody Guthrie’s American Song reflects the prolific songsmith’s connection to the working classes of the United States through an ensemble of five men and three women, singing while accompanying themselves on a range of acoustic musical instruments in a humble setting.
Deemed the “original folk hero” by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when inducted into it at its 1988 opening, Woody Guthrie spent much of his life touring the country vagabond-style from east to west, observing ‘real folks’ and commenting on their trials and tribulations through his unique musical ballad style of song. Twenty-four homespun, heartfelt tunes, some better known than others, fill the two act span of this production, as the ensemble strolls in and out, solo or in twos and threes, while the remaining cast members casually attend each other’s performances seated or standing about the space. It’s easy to imagine how Guthrie entranced transient workers gathered around hobo town campfires from the engaging presentation style of the production. The June 22 audience clapped and sang along when invited by the performers (Do Re Mi”, “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Ya”, “This Land Is Your Land”) and appreciated the depth and forthrightness of the musical revue unraveling before them.
Theatre Three’s ensemble transitioned seamlessly from one number to the next, with each voice featured in outstanding solo moments or blending well in harmonic interplay. Sheryl Etzel, Doug Jackson, Natalie Wilson King, Arianna Movassagh, Alexander Ross, Daniel Svoboda, Willy Welch and Christina Harpine on fiddle comprised the cast. Alexander Ross’ soulful interpretation of “Dust Storm Disaster” and Natalie King’s rousing rendition of “Union Maid” stood out as particularly representative of the Guthrie spirit at opening night’s performance; all singers brought their varied slices of Americana to vivid life with guitar, banjo, piano, bass and mandolin accompaniment.
NEA grant recipient playwright Peter Glazer, the creator and original director of Woody Guthrie’s American Song, came by his interest in the subject naturally. A 60’s born son of parents deeply involved in the political labor movement, his father Tom was a folksinger contemporary of Guthrie’s. Glazer conceived of and created the work in the late 80’s, partly in backlash to the Reagonomics-based greed of the era. Since 1988, the musical revue has been produced in more than seventy-five theaters around the country, winning rave reviews and numerous awards along the way, including three Bay Area Theater Critic’s Circle Awards for productions at Berkeley Repertory Theater and San Jose Repertory Theater. “Woody’s material is seductive in any time,” Glazer said. “It resonated in its moment many decades ago as well as the late 80’s. It isn’t any less seductive given the climate it appears in, and that’s its beauty. I didn’t want to strip it of politics,” he said, “but I didn’t want the audience to forget they were dealing with theatrical entertainment [either].”
Theatre Three’s production of Woody Guthrie’s American Song continues through July 26 at the intimate Theatre Too space, ideal for enjoying this production.
Tickets: 214-871-3300 or on-line: http://www.theatre3dallas.com
Photo Credit: Ken Birdsell