September 16, 2019
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Penobscot Theatre is taking Woody Guthrie songs to a prison and a country fair this fall

Courtesy of Magnus Stark
Courtesy of Magnus Stark
A scene from "Woody Guthrie's American Song," to be performed by the Penobscot Theatre Company Sept. 5-29.

The Penobscot Theatre Company will take its season-opening show, “Woody Guthrie’s American Song” on the road this month, in a series of special performances in keeping with the spirit of Guthrie, the wildly influential troubadour and folksinger.

The show, a pastiche of Guthrie songs directed by Chris “Red” Blisset and music director Jeremy Sevelovitz, is making its traditional three-week run at the Bangor Opera House this month. It started Thursday and runs through Sunday, Sept. 29.

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But the cast and crew will also play two shows in two unique venues: on Friday, Sept. 20, at the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity and on Friday, Sept. 27, at Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston for the incarcerated population there.

It’s not the first time Penobscot Theatre Company has performed a show for the inmates at the Charleston prison — the cast of “Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Musical,” also featuring Sevelovitz, performed there in 2015.

Like the Cash show, the Guthrie show creates a narrative around the beloved songbook of an American icon, with five characters telling the story of the powerless, the downtrodden and the resilient people of America, through songs like “Bound for Glory,” “This Land is Your Land,” and “Hard Travelin’.”

“It’s a poetic and powerful social justice history of the country, which obviously is very apropos for today,” said Bari Newport, the theater company’s artistic director.

“Woody Guthrie sang about the working class and about hard times, so I think it will resonate with an incarcerated audience,” Executive Director Kathryn Ravenscraft said. “Part of our mission is to eliminate the barriers that keep people from experiencing theater, so performing in these unusual venues is just the kind of thing we want to keep doing in the future.”

Courtesy of Magnus Stark
Courtesy of Magnus Stark
A scene from "Woody Guthrie's American Song," to be performed by the Penobscot Theatre Company Sept. 5-29.

The production is the fourth time Blisset has directed the show. He says his background singing in church as a teenager and his love of country and folk music give him a deep-seated love for the music and world of Woody Guthrie.

“The bones of this music come from the everyday lives of people, whether it was in church, at home, on the road,” said Blisset, a multi-instrumentalist who also performs in the show. “Woody Guthrie was the musical journalist of the 20th century.”

All six cast members not only play multiple, interchangeable roles in the show, but they are also their own band, with all six picking up multiple instruments over the course of the performance. Florida-based fiddler and singer Tova Volcheck joins local performers Gaylen Smith, Heather Astbury-Libby and John Burstein in rounding out the cast, alongside Blisset and Sevelovitz.

Before each performance at the Bangor Opera House, cast members will sit in and among the audience and in the lobby, performing a few different songs each night from the many artists whom Guthrie influenced, including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash and others.

“I think this music, even if it was written all those decades ago, stays very much relevant,” Sevelovitz said. “The message is really simple. It’s about humanity.”

Tickets for “Woody Guthrie’s American Song” are available online at penobscottheatre.org or by calling 207-942-3333.

Correction: The name of the show’s director was initially incorrect. It has been corrected to read “Chris ‘Red’ Blisset.”


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