“Woody Guthrie’s American Song” – Arizona Theatre Company

This review aired on KBAQ January 3, 2011


Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Theater Center
Phoenix, AZ

“Woody Guthrie’s American Song” is a grand tribute to the laid back entertainer/composer whose many songs from the 1930s through the 1950s are timeless because they’re relevant to contemporary economic and social issues. The low key Arizona Theatre Company production marks the 1988 show’s Arizona debut.

Unlike recent ATC jukebox musical revues, this one is not splashy with sharp staging nor is it filled with grand theatrical flourishes. Instead, it’s an understated piece that comments on past political struggles and inequities in our culture. These historic tunes have become sharp reflections of today’s struggles especially unfair immigrant treatment.

The tunes are familiar but revue creator Peter Glazer has included some thoughtful but lesser known Guthrie compositions to give audiences a broad overview of his songs. Many of Guthrie’s lyrics point directly at injustice.

The “Ludlow Massacre” showcases a now forgotten but profound 1914 moment when 13 family members of striking Colorado coal miners including several children were killed when trapped by a terrible fire set by the Colorado National Guard. Other songs capture significant periods in American history including the ‘30s Dust Bowl, Western migration in “Bound for Glory,” and awful working conditions in “Grand Coulee Dam.” A long second act segment describes mid-‘40s New York City from unique perspectives. Included are Guthrie’s biggest triumphs like “This Land is Your Land” that talks about America’s greatness. These are a few highlights of the almost 30 Guthrie songs used in the revue. Guthrie was a communist sympathizer although he never joined the party. His liberal views were a challenge for America when he was popular.

The production features an exemplary five-person cast who sing Guthrie’s tunes stirringly as they bring rich harmonies to ensemble numbers and deep emotions to solos or works sung by a few. Particularly moving is Sally Mayes and Kenita R. Miller’s masterful “Ludlow Massacre.”  Mayes, one of America’s finest musical theater artists, uses her lush voice throughout, while the earthy Miller provides a nice contrast. Three men play Guthrie at various times and all strum a guitar with impassioned precision. Ryan Nearhoff plays Guthrie the most and his easy twang and rough swagger work beautifully. Sophisticated Jim Newman handles Guthrie’s more polished, later songs. Jason Edwards brings maturity to his songs.

Director Randal Myler’s simple staging is direct and honest like Guthrie. Clever little dances add the flavor and feel of Guthrie’s take on America. An excellent three person band give the songs a nice sound always augmented by a strumming guitar.

“Woody Guthrie’s American Song” pays eloquent tribute to a composer/commentator whose songs are particularly relevant today. It continues through January 16. For tickets, call the Arizona Theatre Company box office at 602-256-6995 or order tickets online at www.arizonatheatre.org.

Grade: B