Theater Review: Woody Guthrie's American Song
Marginalized lives leave faint traces on history's pages. Voiceless classes - serfs, slaves, servants - are swallowed up by time, their individual stories missing from the narrative of kings and conquerors. The growth of literacy and technology in 20th-century America expanded the documentation of human struggles, such as those that occurred during the dark days of the Dust Bowl and the Depression. The most familiar testimony from that era, however, is mute: stark, black-and-white photographs of haunted, hungry faces; endless soup-kitchen lines and desiccated farm fields.
The eloquent, witty and insightful voice of folk singer Woody Guthrie (1912-67) helped bring those pictures to life. Guthrie wasn't speaking for those people and their experiences; he was speaking from them, having lived the hard times and suffered alongside his countrymen. Woody Guthrie's American Song animates his music, words and life into an engaging evening of theater. At the Vermont Stage Company, director Mark Nash has assembled an outstanding ensemble that does Guthrie proud, singing, strumming and telling stories with gusto and glee.
The bio-musical is a veritable modern stage epidemic. The central question each such show must answer is: Does it work as a piece of drama, or just rest on the music's laurels? American Song succeeds theatrically for two reasons. First, playwright Peter Glazer had a wealth of Guthrie's own writings. The dialogue rings as true as the tunes because all the words in the show are Woody's. Second, the story emphasizes themes with emotional resonance over a recitation of biographical detail.
American Song captures how Guthrie sang and spoke from a place of deep compassion and hard-won wisdom, leavened with a sly sense of humor. On stage, Oklahoma, California and New York stand in for the 46 states he actually managed to roam. Six actors - three men, two women and one boy - play various characters Woody encounters in his travels. The men portray the singer himself at different ages.
The performers accompany themselves and one another on a variety of instruments, including guitar, banjo and mandolin. A bass player and a fiddler also play on stage throughout the show. The score includes about two dozen Guthrie tunes - a fraction of the hundreds he wrote, but enough to hint at his protean identity in music history.
Guthrie synthesized many strands of early American musical culture, from casual drinking songs to traditional African-American spirituals. He sometimes revamped old tunes with new lyrics, as he did with the spiritual "Bound for Glory." (This also became the title of his 1943 autobiographical novel, a source for some vivid passages in American Song.) The show alternates sets of uptempo numbers with slower ones, a method that both enhances dramatic pacing and highlights the diversity of Guthrie's musical output.
Act I focuses on the "hard travelin'" Guthrie did in his early years. The Oklahoma of his childhood was a rough-and-tumble frontier, where "the corn growed, the oil flowed and the farmer owed." By his mid-teens, he had adopted an itinerant lifestyle, mostly singing for his supper. In the 1930s, Guthrie headed west across the dust-ravaged plains toward California, along with millions of other migrants. Large-scale government projects, such as building dams, provided scarce jobs. Desperate for work, thousands would camp at a remote canyon, waiting months for dam construction to begin. Act I concludes with an extended scene at a makeshift encampment.
By 1940, Guthrie landed in New York City. Act II concentrates on his contradictory experiences of urban life. He observes the underbelly - poverty, anonymity, overcrowding. But he also recognizes that unionization and political organization give poor people strength in numbers. And he knows his songs play a role in telling their stories to the world.
Disasters, natural and manmade, particularly move Guthrie. "If a cyclone comes or a flood wrecks the country, if a big ship goes down or the working people go out to win a war, yes, you'll come up with a train load of things you can set down and make up songs about," he says. "The Sinking of the Reuben James" recounts the wreck of a U.S. Navy destroyer torpedoed by a German U-boat; "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)" mourns a planeload of Mexican immigrants lost in a fiery crash. The lyrics of both underline Guthrie's emotional connection to individual loss. He refuses to let deaths remain faceless statistics.
American Song does not milk Guthrie's own tragic end; the show settles for a brief scene that acknowledges how Huntington's disease stole his mind many years before it took his body. Rollicking choruses of "This Land Is Your Land" quickly follow, leaving the audience upbeat about Guthrie's remarkable legacy.
Vermont Stage's production was strong on all fronts. The intimacy of the FlynnSpace created a perfect environment for the cast's pure, unvarnished singing, which beautifully evoked the spirit of Guthrie's sound. Woody's own words, used in Act I to describe two women harmonizing at a campfire, express what the ensemble achieved:
"It was so clear and honest sounding, no Hollywood put-on, wasn't no fake wiggling. Instead of getting you all riled up mentally, morally and sexually, no, it done something a lot better, something that's a lot harder to do, something you need 10 times more. It cleared your head up, that's what it done."
In this era of overembellished belting, the ensemble's clarity was a refreshing reminder of what singing is supposed to be. No runs, no trills, no errors. Instead, it was soft, supple and subtle, always serving the simple melodies and poignant lyrics.
The cast overflowed with multitalented musicians, singers and actors. Ensemble member Patti Casey doubled as music director. Along with director Nash, Casey and the cast deserve copious credit for creating a relaxed, inviting atmosphere. The hard work of mastering so much material came off as effortless. Audience members toe-tapped, head-bopped and even sang along on familiar tunes, because the evening felt more like a shared experience than a staged performance.
Musical highlights abounded. Ellen McQueeney and Casey sang particularly well together, creating luscious, tight harmonies in several numbers. Eleven-year-old charmer Jan Monteagudo-Meese showed flair blowing the harmonica, playing the spoons and flashing his smile.
Evan Beamer, Brett Hughes and Chuck Meese each brought a special kind of warmth to Guthrie's songs: Beamer's singing was more honeyed, Hughes' edgier and more plaintive, and Meese's wiser and more reflective. Perhaps most impressive was Beamer, who seemed completely at home on stage in his professional acting debut. Bassist Tyler Bolles and fiddler Joseph Campanella Cleary provided robust instrumental support throughout the performance.
Nash marshalled strong production elements to reinforce American Song's aura of authenticity. Jenny C. Fulton's scenic design emphasized unpainted, rough-cut wood for the stage and many of the props. Her period costumes featured faded hues of pale denim blue, mocha brown and dusty rose. Pieced quilts, hanging from clotheslines at the back of the set, echoed these colors.
Faults were few. Pacing lagged in some overly long numbers. Judicious snips to the script would have helped - and trimmed the bulky running time of nearly two and a half hours (with an intermission). Nash's staging was inventive, but some actors occasionally turned their backs to the audience for over-long intervals. The unavoidable FlynnSpace poles were artfully clad in pine. But they made it unnecessarily difficult for the audience to see the historical photo slides, which weren't projected high enough.
Still, these are minor issues, given that this production of American Song is richly entertaining. It reminds us of Guthrie's rightful place in a healthy American tradition that goes all the way back to colonial rabble-rousers and tea-tossing troublemakers: the patriotism of dissent. In the poem "This Is Our Country Here," Guthrie explained that when he spoke against injustice, he did so out of love for his country:
"Because I seen the pretty and I seen the ugly and it was because I knew the pretty part that I wanted to change the ugly part."