Most people know folk singer, Woody Guthrie, as the man who penned the lyrics to “This Land is Your Land.” What many might not realize is that he wrote more than 1,000 songs over several decades in the 20th century ranging from protest tunes to American classics.
His famous single is not performed until the conclusion of Intrepid Theatre Company’s production of Woody Guthrie’s American Song. Before the ending, audiences are treated to soulful renditions of numerous melodies from a vocally soothing quintet.
Peter Glazer conceived and adapted the theatrical take on Guthrie’s music. Throughout the evening, Guthrie is played by three artists who depict him at different periods of his life. The 1988 play opens with the adventurous Searcher (Jack French), followed by the sly Folksinger (co-artistic director and director of operations, Sean Yael-Cox). After Searcher and Folksinger share their experiences, the reflective older Writer (Leonard Patton) thinks about the highs and lows of his personal life.
Glazer did not create a traditional biopic. However, one of the few things that can be nitpicked about Woody Guthrie’s American Song is that Searcher’s early monologue makes it sound like it is going to turn into one. Instead, Glazer crafted an unabashed celebration of the world-renowned musician.
Though Searcher starts to share interesting information about Guthrie, not much is learned about him until late into Act II.
The stars wear clothing (provided by costume designer, Jeanne Reith) similar to Guthrie’s, however, neither French, Yael-Cox or Patton try to imitate his distinct vocal style. They sing their own renditions of his acclaimed music.
The three leads emote tunes like “Dust Bowl Refugee,” “Pastures of Plenty” and “Ain’t Gonna Be Treated This Way” with thoughtful meaning and warmth.
French gives the young Guthrie an optimistic determination to make something of himself. He turns “Oklahoma Hills” into a cheerfully upbeat ditty.
Getting to sing one of the funnier solos, “Talkin’ Subway,” is Yael-Cox. His sneaky sense of humor leads to several clever punchlines during the anti-love letter to New York.
A very complicated rendition of “End of My Line” is given to Patton. Patton’s rendition starts off lighthearted enough, yet he gives the final verse a devastating payoff that does not ignore the serious subtext of Guthrie’s prose.
Often singing alongside the stars are Karen Ann Daniels and Megan M. Storti who both play various roles. Daniels moves back and forth between being a belt heavy soloist and a chorale member over short periods of time.
During an early performance, Storti’s vocals were a little rough in the opening number, “Hard Travelin’.” She quickly improved and began to croon with a relaxed and tender voice.
Instruments are used by each cast member as well as the American song band. Under the music direction of Jon Lorenz and miking of Matt Lescault-Wood, neither the band nor five performers drown out the other on the Horton Grand Theatre stage.
While often a calming staging, Glazer acknowledges grim elements of the 1930s and 40s. The Dust Bowl (brought to vivid life by Michael McKeon’s projections), World War II and migrant workers are talked about by the characters.
Director, Ruff Yeager, keeps his version focused on the music. There are instances where he thinks outside the box, including a train sequence that features “This Train is Bound For Glory.” Yeager turns the train segment into almost a mini musical with suspenseful lighting from Christopher Renda, and a dramatic energy that fuels Searcher’s nightmarish experience.
Using “This Land is Your Land” during the epilogue was a wise choice from Glazer. The lyrics have a contemplative quality in the context of the tale. It does not take long to become uplifted listening to the players sing such an optimistic anthem while also honoring Guthrie’s achievements.
Woody Guthrie’s American Song is not just a pleasure to watch. It’s an important reminder about how music can have a positive impact on society. Everyone from baby boomers to millennials should visit downtown San Diego to see an affectionate tribute to the prolific songwriter.