Woody Guthrie’s storytelling comes to life in Dramaworks’ ‘American Song’

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By ROBERT HAGELSTEINaaron_bio_pic
Blogger at lacunaemusing.blogspot.com
July 1, 2018

“Woody Guthrie’s American Song,” the ensemble musical revue which opens Friday, July 13 for a three-week run, is a celebration of the life, writings and music of Woody Guthrie, as well as the vibrant American spirit.

The musical, which was conceived by Peter Glazer, features more than two dozen of the legendary balladeer’s songs, including his best known piece, “This Land is Your Land,” as well as many other favorites such as “Do Re Mi,” “Bound for Glory,” “Hard Travelin’” and “Union Maid.” All the dialogue was compiled by Glazer from Guthrie’s writings. He was a folksong poet, with an uncanny ability to capture the vernacular and the travails of the common man.

He describes his symbiotic relationship with “his” people in a 1946 poetic ode called “The People I Owe,” which is excerpted in the opening speeches of the show.

I have heard a storm of words in me, enough to write several hundred songs and that many books. I know that these words I hear are not my own private property. … I borrowed them from you, the same as I walked through the high winds and borrowed enough air to keep me moving. I borrowed enough to eat and drink to keep me alive. I borrowed the shirt you made, the coat you spun, the underwear you fixed, and those socks you wove. I went on and walked down my road, you went on and walked your path. And the weather’s winds, snows, sleets, ices, and hailstones cut down the oat straw, beat through the car top, knocked holes in shingles and went through awnings broke window lights, but never separated our works. Your works and my works held hands and our memories never did separate. I borrowed my life from the works of your life. I have felt your energy in me and seen mine move in you.

There are obvious comparisons of Guthrie’s experience to the contemporary world’s divisiveness, income inequality and immigration woes. But this musical revue is apolitical and instead is a celebration of what brings us together as a nation, of what it means to be human.

Bruce Linser is the show’s director. Linser is the manager of Dramaworks’ The Dramaworkshop and just came from a very successful production of “Avenue Q” which he directed for the MNM Theatre Company. 

“This [“American Song”] is an experience to bring people together,” says Linser. “I hope audiences will be surprised by the sheer joy and relevancy. Guthrie was incredibly passionate about storytelling, and what he was saying he was also singing, making this ensemble theatrical experience moving.” 

Linser says that even though this is an ensemble cast, he approached it as he would any musical. “It must tell a compelling story.”

“Ironically, Guthrie’s tragic flaw – his restlessness – might have deprived him of even more fame when he lived,” adds Linser. “But that was his strength, telling the tales of people who were marginalized from all over the nation, from the migrant workers to those toiling in factories organizing unions.”

The cast of five actor/musicians features Cat Greenfield, Don Noble, Sean Powell (who is also the musical director) and Jeff Raab, all making their Dramaworks debuts, and Dramaworks veteran Julie Rowe. They will be joined onstage by musicians Joshua Lubben, Michael Lubben and Tom Lubben, West Palm Beach-based triplets who are familiar to many South Floridians as The Lubben Brothers.

The actors supply the drama and the poetry while the energy of Guthrie’s songs is amplified by the Lubben Brothers – all classically trained musicians but drawn to the American folk tradition. It is their own mission statement: “Music brings community. As a family that plays music together, we desire to bring others into the same unity we have come to love.” 

Talk about type casting!

When asked about their feelings about Guthrie and this show in particular, they said (singularly of course, but one might begin a thought while another completes it), “This is the first time we’ve gone so deeply into Guthrie’s’ music. We’re familiar of course with his big name standards, “This Land Is Your Land,” “So Long It’s Been Good to Know Yah” and see him in the great American tradition of folk storytellers. He tells the story of a part of America that has been forgotten. The images in the show are very powerful and organic, demonstrating a disenfranchised people’s faith and hard work, trying to build their lives and make a better one for their children. Guthrie eloquently expresses the essence of the American Dream in his folksongs.”

The Lubben Brothers says that although at times they find themselves going back to their classical roots, and performing classical concerts as well, they always get together at least once a week to sing folksongs, from Afro-American spirituals to folk songs of today. “We simply love to discover ones from America’s past and to sing them,” says Michael Lubben.

“We think this experience is going to be very different than the usual concert performance,” Joshua Lubben adds. “The latter must just sound good, one off, but playing each day in a structured show allows development and, of course, as you are playing before a different audience each day, those performances can be slightly different, responding to the audience.”

Michael Lubben adds, “We love the way the actors in the play depict three different periods in Guthrie’s life, a moving way of showing a multifaceted human being.”

The joy and the energy of the Lubben Brothers can be seen in their rehearsal of Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi” about how dust bowl migrant workers were turned away or poorly treated at the California border:

Sound familiar?

So before Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, there was Woody Guthrie. He gave rise to so many great singers who were champions of the common man. It is indeed a time to celebrate and come together.

“Woody Guthrie’s American Song” runs July 13 through Aug. 5. Palm Beach Dramaworks is located in The Don & Ann Brown Theatre at 201 Clematis St. in West Palm Beach. To purchase tickets, call the box office at 514-4020 or go online to palmbeachdramaworks.org.

To read more reviews by Robert Hagelstein, as well as his writings covering topics including business, literature and politics, go to lacunaemusing.blogspot.com.

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