By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Bad times make for good music. Woody Guthrie's American Song, now playing at Theatre Too in The Quadrangle, celebrates the Okie balladeer who blended stories of the Great Depression with simple tunes and made them anthems of working-class America.
Woody Guthrie’s American Song continues through July 26 at Theatre Too (below Theatre Three). Call 214-871-3300.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang continues through July 5 at the Music Hall at Fair Park. Call 214-631-ARTS.
In this warm and well-informed two-hour revue, conceived and adapted by Peter Glazer, directed and designed by Bruce R. Coleman, the familiar songs all are there: "Bound for Glory,'' "Nine Hundred Miles,'' "Worried Man,'' "Ain't Gonna Be Treated This Way,'' "Pastures of Plenty,'' "I Ain't' Got No Home'' and the rousing finale, "This Land Is Your Land.'' But you'll also hear some that didn't filter through the resurgence of Guthrie's folk style in the 1960s and '70s. Those are lyrical narratives inspired by Depression-era headlines about migrant workers killed in a plane crash (the haunting "Deportees"), the building of the Grand Coulee Dam and "The Sinking of the Rueben James," about a German U-boat attack on an American naval vessel before the United States entered World War II.
Sounds grim, but it never is, thanks to the clearheaded, straightforward singing and playing by Theatre Too's eight-member ensemble: Willy Welch (vocals, guitar, bass), Daniel Svoboda (vocals, bass, acoustic guitar, mandolin), Alexander Ross (vocals, piano), Doug Jackson (vocals, banjo, guitar, harmonica), Christine Harpine (fiddle), Sherry Etzel (vocals, guitar) and singers N. Wilson King and Arianna Movassagh. Layering tight harmonies, their unamplified voices lift up and out into the audience, inspiring many in the crowd to join in, which seems like the perfectly right thing to do.
This is a cool little jukebox show about a singer who rarely made it onto any jukebox rotation in his lifetime.
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie grew up in tiny Okemah, Oklahoma, and spent his teen years singing on the streets and in the dance halls of Pampa, Texas, where his father had moved after Woody's mother was institutionalized as a result of the effects of Huntington's disease. (The degenerative illness would also claim the singer's life in 1967.)
The Dust Bowl migration—"times when the dust blowed and the farmer owed," he sang—took Guthrie to California. Along the way, he picked up blues and folk melodies from people he met on the road. He also collected their stories, which made their way into his lyrics. "I started to make up songs 'bout what I thought was wrong," he's quoted in the show. "I cry down here on paper."
Funny how relevant Guthrie's old tunes are again. He made toe-tappers out of the plight of homeless people camped out in "hobo jungles," and he sang about busted banks, displaced farmers and how the 1930s left almost everyone short of "Do-Re-Mi." In the best duet in American Song, Welch and Jackson do an impromptu street-corner sing-off, passing their hats (feel free to toss in some scratch, if you can spare it, for these underpaid performers) and singing about being stranded in "New York Town."
Guthrie's adventures in Manhattan make up the lively second act of the show. Welch gets good laughs for his comic delivery of "Talkin' Subway Blues," in which Guthrie gets lost in the Big Apple's underground tunnels. Ross and Svoboda, the two handsome young'uns in the cast, get to show off their wide-open pipes on "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Ya."
Only Movassagh, with her quavering soprano, seems out of place on most of the numbers. Her voice, often meandering just off pitch, doesn't lend itself well to the flat, un-fluttery style of this music. She also emotes far too obviously as the lead singer on the dramatic "Deportees."
Everyone else, though, is terrific, particularly Welch, whose affable voice and expert guitar-playing anchor the production. Theatre Too, not usually a venue for well-polished work, has its best show yet in Woody Guthrie's American Song. Coleman's scenic design—walls and floor painted like weathered boards—makes the oblong space feel sometimes like a box car, sometimes like an old-fashioned, small-town barn dance. As the singers step in front of the footlights (another old-fashioned touch), they seem to be stepping out of a mythical place in American history, a time when the country was down but not out and hope was always just a few more miles down the open road.
There's a surprising amount of Third Reich imagery in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the Broadway touring production now chugging along noisily at the Music Hall at Fair Park. Seriously, Nazi stuff. Lots of it. Maybe this was the point of Ian Fleming's children's tale of spies and tyrants from the country of "Vulgaria," and the evil "Child Catcher" who stalks the countryside snatching up tots and sticking them in underground prisons. I've never read the 1964 book or seen the 1968 movie starring Dick Van Dyke, mostly because of the annoying brain-Velcro quality of the movie's theme song, which is also played ad nauseam in the stage adaptation. But really, did book and movie depict flowing red banners festooned with black Nazi eagles? Was the Baron of Vulgaria's "birthday party" meant to resemble Hitler's 1936 rally at Nuremberg?
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