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Woody Guthrie's American Song




Briar Street Theatre

The songs and stories of Woodrow Wilson ("Woody") Guthrie have become so much a part of the American idiom that one frequently finds them anthologized as traditional folk ballads--a confusion exacerbated by Guthrie's practice of co-opting the structure and melodies of earlier folk songs, adding his own lyrics. In the 1950s, when the singer-songwriter was forced to retire from performing after being diagnosed with Huntington's chorea, which ended his life in 1967, Pete Seeger kept songs like "This Land Is Your Land," "Hard Traveling," and "So Long (It's Been Good to Know Yuh)" alive. Bob Dylan did the same through the 1960s, taking the familiar tunes and putting his own unique stamp on them.

That Guthrie's vision has continued to shine through several generations of interpreters--including his son Arlo--is tribute to his power and poetry. The finely honed arrangements of Peter Glazer's documentary-biography-revue, Woody Guthrie's American Song, may offend purists, but they definitely reveal the humble wisdom and transcendent beauty of the originals. And now the 1991 Northlight Theatre production, which captured three of the top Joseph Jefferson awards later that year, is being revived virtually intact at the Briar Street Theatre. "This is a mighty big barn," comments one of the musicians, but the cavernous new quarters do not in any way diminish the exhilaration of a scene in which Woody, riding a boxcar roof in the rain, hears the singing of the folks beneath and defies the lightning: "Strike, goddam you, strike! There's people you can't hurt!" Nor do they affect the triumph of a scene in which a barroom critic is silenced by a roomful of people singing "Union Maid" ("You can't scare me / I'm sticking to the union") and gradually won over by the patriotic "The Sinking of the Reuben James." Nor do they destroy the haunting compassion of the ensemble's "Pastures of Plenty": "Every state in the union, we migrants have been / We come with the dust and are gone with the wind."

This production reunites four of the five Northlight performers. Once again Christopher Walz and Brian Gunter trade virtuoso guitar riffs and mossy old jokes in the puckish "New York Town," Susan Moniz raises her plaintive soprano on the mournful "Deportee," and robust contralto Ora Jones gives "Grand Coulee Dam" a strength as awe inspiring as that of the mighty Columbia itself. New to the cast is classical actor Kevin Gudahl, who contributes a nice gut-bucket baritone. Also returning is the three-piece string band--Malcolm Ruhl, Bob Fulks, and L.J. Slavin--playing a score of musical instruments.

"They are the people who follow the seasons," said Guthrie in his autobiography, Bound for Glory. "They don't just set along in the sun. They go by the sun, and it lights up the country they know is theirs." At first glance the expensively dressed opening-night crowd may have seemed a strange match with the disenfranchised people Guthrie celebrates. But on second thought, many of those audience members may be of an age to fully understand the penury of those Depression days. Guthrie, with his eternal hope for better times, might have been pleased to see how well his compatriots and their children and grandchildren have done for themselves since those dusty years.


Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace

I might be the only person in the entire United States who's never seen Frank Capra's 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life, whose holiday popularity may be due in part to its resemblance to A Christmas Carol: both protagonists reverse their fates after supernatural revelations on Christmas Eve. But instead of a misanthropic miser, the hero of It's a Wonderful Life is George Bailey, a man who's dedicated himself, often at great personal sacrifice, to doing the right thing. A greedy, unscrupulous rival brings him to the point of bankruptcy and despair, but a guardian angel shows him what the town would have been like without him. His morale restored, he returns to find that his kindness and generosity have not gone unrewarded.

It's a wonderful story, optimistic and morally unimpeachable--who can argue that it's a bad thing to be unselfish? But it's apparent in David Nehls and Michael Tilford's musical adaptation, even to someone encountering the tale for the first time, that a substantial portion of the narrative has been eliminated to make room for the music. This is unfortunate, since most of the songs are so independent of the story (the better, one presumes, to allow for conversion to cabaret revues or adult-contemporary radio) that they decorate rather than support the plot, which zips by so quickly that crucial transitions are lost to anyone not already familiar with it.

The production mounted at Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace, under the competent direction of Gary Griffin, is sumptuous and sugary enough to win back any audiences alienated by the hip-gritty City of Angels earlier this season. Todd Petersen as George displays a clear tenor, on-target pitch, and more than sufficient breath control for the extended notes with which Nehls and Tilford conclude too many of their songs. As Mary, the woman whose only goal in life is to stand by her man, Kate Fry offers a chirpy soprano well suited to the two "I'm here for you, darling" ballads allotted her. Felicia Fields plays the guardian angel (written for a woman, presumably to add more treble to the vocal ensemble) with the earthy humor characteristic--if not required--of black women in musicals these days. And the children--Kimberly Dal Santo, Peter Thoresen, and Heather Marie Johnson--predictably steal the show. For all the prodigious talent and skill going into this holiday concoction, however, it's never anything more than a supplement--or, in my case, introduction--to the classic motion picture.

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