Reviewed by Judy Richter
Just as Dorothea Lange helped to tell the story of the dust bowl and the plight of migrant workers in the 1930s with her photographs, so Woody Guthrie helped to tell the story with his songs. And, quite disturbingly, many of the works of both artists could just as easily have been created today.
This message is made clear in Marin Theatre Company's revival of "Woody Guthrie's American Song," a compilation of the Guthrie's songs and writings. Conceived, adapted and directed by Peter Glazer, the musical premiered in 1988. The Bay Area first saw it as a co-production at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and San Jose Repertory Theatre in 1992.
The current production features a terrific ensemble cast of five singer-actors along with a band of three men who provide both instrumental and vocal backup. People who were around to enjoy the folk music boom that started in the later '50s will recognize many of the songs from recordings by the likes of the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Baez and others. Even if the songs are new to one's ears, it's hard to resist the infectious melodies, toe-tapping rhythms and compelling lyrics.
Guthrie's writings provide an autobiographical, chronological framework for 29 songs that he wrote mostly in the '30s and '40s. He was born in 1912 and died in 1967, but his career ended in the mid-'50s when he was stricken with Huntington's chorea, a degenerative disease that he inherited from his mother.
The first act opens with the company singing "Hard Travelin'," which fittingly describes many of the experiences dramatized in the show. Sam Misner portrays Guthrie during the first act, while Matt Mueller takes on most of the role in the second act, supplemented by the rest of the company. Blending beautifully, Lisa Asher and Megan Pearl Smith provide some of the show's more poignant moments in their renditions of "I Ain't Got No Home in This World Anymore," "Worried Man" and "Ludlow Massacre." Berwick Haynes excels in such songs as "End of My Line" and "Better World/Lonesome Valley". Other memorable songs include "Bound for Glory", "The Sinking of the Reuben James" and "Hard, Ain't It Hard." The finale, an audience sing-along, is Guthrie's best known song, "This Land Is Your Land".
The songs that seem most relevant to today's headlines are "Do Re Mi," which refers to the need for money to get ahead; "Jolly Banker", which speaks of foreclosures and the high interest rates charged by banks; and "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)", which addresses the plight of immigrants.
Valuable contributions are made by the instrumentalists: musical director Tony Marcus on mandolin, fiddle and banjo;Chuck Ervin on bass and harmonica; and Harry Yaglijian on guitar, mandolin, piano and dobro. Misner and Mueller also play guitar for many songs. Glazer's staging lends reality to the show, along with sets by Melpomene Katakalos, costumes by Jocelyn Leiser Herndon, lighting by David H.K. Elliott and sound by Ted Crimy.
The two-act show runs more than two hours, but it flies by swiftly thanks to the material, the performers and the artistic team. Audiences agree, for MTC has just announced that ticket demand is so great that the show has been extended for a week. It's a show that deserves to be seen not only for its entertainment value but also for its tribute to a restless wanderer whose music captured the joys and sorrows of the common man.