The Penobscot Theatre Company, under the leadership of Producing Artistic Director Bari Newport, opened its 46th season with another memorial to an American songwriter that will have audiences singing along with the troupe of talented musicians and singers on stage.
“Woody Guthrie’s American Song” is a rousing tribute to the huge library of songs he left behind when he died in 1967 at the age of 55 of Huntington’s disease. This show is similar to “Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash,” which opened PTC’s 2015 season and “Always … Patsy Cline,” produced in 2012.
In addition to celebrating many of Guthrie’s best known and most influential songs, the show purports to be a biography as well. Theatergoers looking for insight into Guthrie’s creative process and his personal life will be sorely disappointed. “Woody Guthrie’s American Song” is more a Hallmark movie of the month than a Ken Burns’ documentary.
But the cast of Heather Astbury-Libby, Chris “Red” Blisset, John Burstein, Jeremy Sevelovitz, Tova Volcheck and Gaylen Smith create a tight musical ensemble. Blisset, who directed the production, and music director Sevelovitz are agile musicians, who play a variety of instruments that give depth to Guthrie’s compositions. Volcheck’s fiddling goes from a lively square dance tune to a haunting melody in a short blackout.
It is impossible to praise one cast member over another because they so often perform with one voice and transform into a choir belting out sacred music.
That does not diminish the power of Gutherie’s music and its important place in helping to document American history. The show, conceived and adapted by Peter Glazer before premiering in 1988, starts off at a fairly slow pace with “Hard Travelin” and “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh” before storming into a show stopping version of “Bound for Glory.”
It steams into Guthrie’s California years with “Worried Man.” The first act ends with “Pastures of Plenty,” Guthrie’s ode to the migrant workers that says: “California and Arizona, I make all your crops, and its North up to Oregon to gather your hops, dig the beets from your ground, cut the grapes from your vine, to set on your table your light sparkling wine.”
Act Two opens with “Ludlow Massacre,” a ballad about a Colorado miners’ strike in 2014 — the year Guthrie was born — in which 21 people, mostly women and children were killed by members of the National Guard and coal company enforcers. It is a shattering and haunting story that Guthrie said he wrote as a warning to labor activists to ensure such an incident was never repeated.
“Deportee,” performed near the end of the show, could have been written this year about the deportation of undocumented workers under the Trump administration. Guthrie’s song tells the story of a 1948 plane wreck over Los Gatos Canyon, California, that killed 28 migrant farm workers being returned to Mexico.
“The crops are all in and the peaches are rotting, the oranges are piled in their creosote dumps, flying you back to the Mexico border, to pay all your money to wade back again,” he wrote. Of the nearly 30 songs in the show, it best demonstrates the timelessness of Guthrie’s insight into America’s working people and his enduring influence on its music.
The technical team, made up of Tricia A. Hobbs, scenic designer; Anthony Pellecchia, lighting designer; and Brittany Staudacher, costume designer, have turned the Bangor Opera House into a whistle stop on a railroad line that allows the cast to move from one town to another just as Guthrie did.
It lets the cast move from Oklahoma to California to New York City and back again as they take theatergoers along. Photos of Guthrie and the times he lived through are projected onto a hanging set piece designed to look like a barn door and help illustrate the events that influenced the songwriter.
“Woody Guthrie’s American Song” is an auspicious opening to an ambitious season of theater. Let’s hope it foreshadows the excellence that epitomized the 2017-18 offerings.
“Woody Guthrie’s American Song” will be performed through Sept. 29 at the Bangor Opera House, 131 Main St., Bangor. Penobscot Theatre Company is offering free seats for this show to anyone who has never attended a production on an as available basis. For information, call 207-942-3333 or visit penobscottheatre.org.