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This show kills fascists – ‘Woody Guthrie’s American Song’

September 10, 2019
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This show kills fascists – ‘Woody Guthrie’s American Song’ (photo courtesy PTC/© magnus stark, 2019)

BANGOR – The music of an American icon is ringing forth from the stage of the Bangor Opera House.

Penobscot Theatre Company’s production of “Woody Guthrie’s American Song” – conceived and adapted by Peter Glazer from the songs and writings of Woody Guthrie – is directed by Chris “Red” Blissett and music directed by Jeremy Sevelovitz, both of whom also star. The show runs through Sept. 29.

It’s a celebration of the legendary life of Woody Guthrie, one that uses his vast catalog of songs and an assortment of other writings to tell a tale of early 20th century America. With six actors taking turns embodying Guthrie himself, sharing his stories of the common man and the hardscrabble lives being lived by the struggling population through times of war and depression. Heather Astbury-Libby, John Burstein, Gaylen Smith and Tova Volcheck join Blisset and Sevelovitz to bring this performance to life.

Woody Guthrie was born in Oklahoma in 1912. He spent much of his life crisscrossing the United States, searching for work – he was a migrant laborer, one who undertook just about any job that he could get. But he also spent that time drinking in the stories of the people that he encountered along the way – the stories of his America.

An America where thousands fled the looming cloud of dust that engulfed the middle of the country, piling high their rickety trucks with all of their positions and driving west in search of a new life. An America where for most, money was scarce and work was scarcer, leaving people to do whatever they could to carve out a living for themselves and their families. An America where efforts to buck the system and force the higher-ups to remove their thumbs from the scales were met with anger and violence.

That’s the world Woody Guthrie experienced as he wandered all over the country, pooling his experiences with those of the people he met, writing thousands of songs to ensure that those stories would never be forgotten. And thanks to him, they never will be.

“Woody Guthrie’s American Song” isn’t what you’d call a traditional play – this show isn’t about plot, per se. Instead, it’s an exploration of a life through song and storytelling; while there are vignettes devoted to specific moments in Guthrie’s travels – time spent riding in boxcars or camping at migrant worksites or singing for tips in bars – the overall experience is less about linear narrative and more about eliciting emotion. This is a show that renders a rough-hewn portrait of early 20th century America, packed with shirtsleeve-worn hearts and dusty sincerity, all by way of the musings and music of Woody Guthrie.

Making a piece like this one – a piece more theatrical concert than musical theatre – work effectively requires a tremendous amount of work delicately executed. It’s a show that makes heavy demands of its ensemble; the cast must be capable of both quality musicianship and emotive range … and this one is.

Blisset leads the way, ambling across the stage with a casual ease. His performance is energetic while also being unforced; there’s an aw-shucks vibe to his presence that suits the material nicely. But where Blisset goes low, Sevelovitz goes high; there’s an impassioned undertone to every word he speaks and every note he plays. That heat juxtaposes wonderfully with Blisset’s cool.

Astbury-Libby brings her usual powerhouse vocals to the proceedings; few performers have ever owned this stage as thoroughly as she does seemingly every time out. One might think Guthrie’s songs ill-fitting for a belter like Astbury-Libby, but one would be very wrong. Burstein brings a nimbly flexible physicality to his performance while also endowing his musical moments with a world-weary sensibility that evokes a welcome gravitas. And Smith is a staid, stoic presence; he’s largely silent, yet manages to be legitimately powerful when that silence is broken.

Finally, we have Volchek, who flits and fiddles her way through the show, exuding a vibrance that serves to lighten some of the show’s heavier moments. And yet, that vibrance is subverted brilliantly when she takes the vocal lead on the song “Deportee,” which might be one of the most powerful moments to grace the Opera House stage in years. Other songs soar – “Hard Travelin’” and “Bound For Glory” and the iconic “This Land is Your Land” – but nothing matches “Deportee” for sheer emotional impact.

On the production side of things, PTC has once again put forward some outstanding work. Scenic designer Tricia Hobbs uses bare, rough wood and rustic adornments to create a space as homespun as the show’s subject. Lighting designer Anthony Pellecchia captures aesthetically engaging stage pictures while also bringing a sense of the kinetic to the light plot. Brittany Staudacher’s mainstage costume design debut does a wonderful job of evoking the era, sharp and simple. Sound designer Sean McGinley helps to create a balanced, layered soundscape, while Meredith Perry’s properties design is delightfully detailed, as per usual. And Blisset – who apparently wanted to wear another har – handled the design of the projections, images laid onto the back of the set to striking effect.

(Note: At the performance I attended, a technical issue led to a pause in the proceedings. Rather than retreating backstage to wait it out, members of the cast instead chose to come forward and perform. It was charming and organic and the sign of a group of professionals devoted to their craft and eager to please their audience. They should be – and were – applauded.)

“Woody Guthrie’s American Song” isn’t quite a play and it isn’t quite a concert – it’s something in-between. But honestly, that feels absolutely appropriate. Woody Guthrie was a man in-between, a musical vagabond whose place was both everywhere and nowhere. He was not easily defined, so neither should the telling of his story be. PTC’s production is an apt reflection of the man and his music, as well as a surprisingly relevant look at the world in which we currently live.

Timely and timeless, this is a show that is unapologetically itself and utterly American.

Last modified on Tuesday, 10 September 2019 13:50

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