Woody Guthrie’s American Song

richard green

By Philip Pearce

“Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there . . . An’ when folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the homes they build – why, I’ll be there.”

Tom Joad’s words near the end of The Grapes of Wrath could well be the manifesto of Woody Guthrie, who created a legendary body of 20th century folk music that matched Steinbeck’s legendary output of classic fiction.

Following on last year’s production of Grapes, The Western Stage is currently staging a powerful musical tribute to America’s dust bowl troubadour called Woody Guthrie’s American Song. Conceived and adapted by Peter Glazer, it’s a musical review that spans Guthrie’s life and career in words he spoke and the songs he sang.

Four different actors move out of the ensemble to play Guthrie at different stages of his life. First, a spotlight picks out the gifted and lively Mike Baker, who becomes the young Woody, searching to discover who he is in the troubled world of working men and women, the lives they live and the songs they sing.

From Baker, the spotlight and Guthrie’s distinctive guitar pass on to Jill Jackson as, wry and watchful, she takes on the role of Guthrie the depression age traveler, packed into boxcars full of hungry migrants moving westward as drought eats up life and growth in and around the singer’s native Oklahoma.

That Guthrie had some years as a poet and bard in New York’s Bowery was news to me. The show offers an appealing and sardonic segment set in a Lower East Side saloon with Carlos Cortez highlighting this phase of Woody’s life and music.

A final section, with the mature and established Guthrie entering twentieth century folk history, is the able work of sturdy and Lincolnesque Tom Hepner.

Excitingly staged, sung and acted by a company of talented actors and musicians, the chief joy of this fine production is its ensemble numbers. They shift from solos to duets to family group trios and on to the big, memorable full chorus sing-alongs like “This Land is Your Land.” Moment by moment, these moving musical vignettes depict with irony, humor and grief the world Guthrie inhabited and chronicled so powerfully.

So here’s to those I haven’t mentioned: gifted director Lorenzo Aragon, singer/actors Allyson Bojorques, Carlos Cortez, Cesar Flors, Tom Kiatta, Pat Horsley, Celestina Ripley and Steve Uccello. Not to forget musical director Don Dally, who steps in from time to time with some sensational hoedown fiddle solos, and Noah Reeves who not only plays a mean string bass but steps ably into an acting cameo.

Woody Guthrie’s American Song continues Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm through June 22.

Photo by Richard Green