Theatre Too Shows There's Good Times Singing About Hard Times in its Woody Guthrie Revue; Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Runs Out of Gas

Willy Welch anchors the eight-member ensemble in Theatre Too’s Woody Guthrie tribute, which shows just how relevant the singer remains today.
Ken Birdsell

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.

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.


Woody Guthrie's American Song ; Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

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.

This is a cool little jukebox show about a singer who rarely made it onto any jukebox rotation in his lifetime.

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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?

That's all there in this musical, whose labyrinthine plot is nearly impossible to decipher (whole sections of the movie are left out, apparently) or to summarize. And given the Music Hall's voice-garbling sound system, the cast might all have been speaking German, er, Vulgarian, for all I know. Not a word of dialogue from anyone but Steve Wilson, the actor playing the inventor-father, Caractacus Potts, could be clearly understood.

Other than all that, the flying car is cute. And it's about the only enjoyable aspect of a bloated, coarse musical that lacks the witty writing and dynamite singing of a Wicked or the happy-peppy characters and big showstoppers of a Beauty and the Beast or Hairspray.

The Chitty Chitty score by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman is both shrill and dull. Scenes and musical numbers seem grafted together for no reason, as when Caractacus, trying to flee the spies (a vaudeville-style duo played stupidly broad by Dirk Lumbard and Scott Cote) suddenly appears in a circus tent singing and high-kicking to "The Old Bamboo." The second act brings on the Eva Braun character (Elizabeth Ward Land) to sing and dance a samba. In the dialogue by Jeremy Sams (touring script adapted by Ray Roderick), there are scads of off-color jokes about bathroom activities and sexual kinks, the sort of misguided wink-wink gags aimed at parents who themselves are proud vulgarians.

The car "flies" at the end of each long act, an effect that doesn't induce the "ooh-ah" factor that it might if the show around it were better. As Chitty's wasp-like wings unfolded over its tires and rose slowly above the stage floor, I only wished the thing would fly out into the audience and give me a ride home.

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