WomanSong | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Northlight Theatre, at the Theatre Building.

Given the smashing success of last year's Michael, Margaret, Pat and Kate, it was only a matter of time before another musical autobiography made its appearance. And once again the narrator-subject is a homegrown songsmith: Jenny Armstrong, daughter of George and Gerry Armstrong, founders of Chicago's Aural Tradition Society and names familiar to fans of WFMT's "Midnight Special" program for the last 40 years.

Playing guitar, banjo, fiddle, and bagpipes, Armstrong offers accounts of her childhood interspersed with American and Irish folk melodies as well as contemporary compositions, including many of her own--most notably the humorous "Sweet Cider Vinegar," which she conceived as a rebuttal to the traditional stand-by-your-man ditty "I Love an Apple." She recalls being told amazing stories by Joseph Campbell and recounts her professional fiddling debut at the age of eight. She speaks poignantly of the year that illness forced her father, whose bagpiping had opened the University of Chicago Folk Festival for 30 years, to retire, whereupon she donned his uniform (even the socks, causing her father to remark, "You're literally following in my footsteps!") and took up the pipes to carry on his duties.

Directed by Brian Russell, WomanSong has little of its prototype's commercial slickness, and the text sometimes threatens to get lost in its own pantheism. But Armstrong's musical virtuosity and engaging personality make for a genial evening as wholesome as bread and as fresh as the earth of which she sings so sweetly.

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