Woody Guthrie’s American Song
Legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie is pure Americana. During his short lifetime, Guthrie represented the best the country had to offer in difficult times (and sung about the worst). His simple yet searing songs were meant to be sung as well as heard, and his lyrics provided a wonderful blend of sweetness and sadness, heartache and hope.
The 1976 movie Bound for Glory depicted the cinematic story of Guthrie’s musical cross-country journeys. But most people are familiar with his songs through Bob Dylan’s 1960s revivals or through sing-alongs at summer camp. Guthrie’s more familiar songs include “This Land Is Your Land,” “Bound for Glory,” “Hard Travelin’,” “Nine Hundred Miles” and “Hard, Ain’t It Hard.”
These songs, along with 19 others, are the central point of the poignant musical Woody Guthrie’s American Song, now at the Foothill Theatre Company. In this handsome and heartfelt production, we witness not only Guthrie’s admiration of the downtrodden people he embraced but also his anger and frustration about the unfair treatment they received.
Oklahoma-born Guthrie was a true traveling troubadour. He followed the path of his fellow Okies, driven onto the road by the Depression-era Dust Bowl. He was part of a mass exodus heading toward the promised land of California.
Through songs, music and black-and-white slides, we travel with Guthrie and these new immigrants in over-packed, worn-out cars; in the open boxcars of trains; and in the cramped quarters of worker camps. During the second half of the show, we discover the hardships of the New York Bowery as Guthrie moves East.
There’s a lot of music and little dialogue performed by a talented five-member cast and three-person band. It’s more of a hootenanny than a play, with the audience getting involved by singing and clapping along.
The three guitar-playing, singing actors (Stan Thomas-Rose, Sam Misner and Victor Ballesteros) trade off portraying Guthrie. The two actresses (Sands Hall and Megan Smith) help to provide tableaus of the tired but proud masses while also singing and playing along. And the three-member backup band (Barry Angel, Rudy Darling and Rick Toles) brings the music and songs to life.
The production is fun, thought-provoking and engaging. However, because there is so little dialogue and no real storyline, the musical lacks the stronger impact we would feel if more back story about Guthrie were provided.