Reviewed by Lee Shepherd
What a perfect show for the Fourth of July or, indeed, for the whole month of July. Invoking anything but knee-jerk patriotism, Woody Guthrie’s American Song at the Chenango River Theatre, gives a strong message — that liberty and the freedom to speak your mind without fear are precious American rights.
The musical revue traces the life of folk icon Woody Guthrie, composer of more than 3,000 songs characterized by memorable melodies, clever lyrics and fearlessness about telling the truth.
Conceived by Peter Glazier in 1988, the show gives a chronological account of Guthrie’s life — the young man fleeing the Dust Bowl to migrant camps in California, the young balladeer scraping together a living singing in bars in New York City’s Bowery, the seasoned and popular songster struggling with Huntington’s disease, which killed him in 1967 at age 55.
Via song and a backdrop vintage photo slideshow, we’re taken to migrant camps, to the Bowery, to the scene of the Ludlow massacre of miners and their families, to the sinking of the Reuben James and the tragic plane crash that killed a score of nameless migrant workers being deported to Mexico.
You simply can’t believe that the five cast members – Ian Brodsky, Sean Powell, Craig MacDonald, Jennie Malone and Kendra Jo Brook — haven’t been singing together in a band for years instead of only being together for three weeks of rehearsals. They’re great singers, consummate musicians and apparently, according to director Chris Blisset, were left to devise their own (wonderful) vocal and instrumental arrangements. Like traditional bluegrass musicians everywhere, they play a bevy of instruments — fiddle, guitar, mandolin, autoharp, banjo, accordion.
Although the show is very evenly cast, Brook must be singled out for her fine fiddling, strong and beautiful voice and passionate acting. Brodsky and Powell have real dramatic and comedic talent. The duets by Brooke and Malone (another gorgeous voice) provide the most moving and emotional moments in the show. MacDonald, as the mature Woody Guthrie, breaks your heart when he sings “End of My Line” and “Nine Hundred Miles (from my home).” Back-up bassist Beth Bartlett, the only non-singer in the show, offers a strong rhythmic foundation for the singers.
Clever staging, lighting and sets by Paige Harris, Julie Duro and Bill Lelbach place us at the scene of some of the most significant events of the 20th century – the Depression, the great dust storms, World War II, the social and political upheavals resulting from unionism, the Communist party movement and the Cold War.
I defy you not to laugh, cry, sing along and thoroughly enjoy this fine show.
IF YOU GO: Woody Guthrie’s American Song continues through July 26 at the Chenango River Theatre, 991 State Route 12, Greene. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. For ticket information, call 656-8499 or visit www.chenangorivertheatre.org.