Commonweal's 'Guthrie' timely, important production
LANESBORO — "Woody Guthrie's American Song" might be the most important production at the Commonweal Theatre in years.
First off, it's energizing for the theater company to perform music on its stage. It doesn't happen too often, and both audiences and performers benefit from that energy.
Second, and the biggest reason, is that the sentiments expressed in Guthrie's songs are too infrequently heard these days. When Stela Burdt belts out "You can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union" — well, that's much different than what we hear from so many politicians today who would rather stick it to the union.
Burdt returns to the Commonweal stage as part of an ensemble with Gary Danciu, Ryan Lee, Megan K. Pence and Jeremy van Meter, all of whom take on Guthrie's voice as they sing his songs and tell his stories. Twenty-two of Guthrie's songs are featured, tracing his life as he wandered the country during the Great Depression and campaigned for a better world for all after World War II.
Each member of the cast sings and plays instruments — guitar, mandolin, fiddle, harmonica, shakers, drum — and if they don't always sound like expert vocalists or musicians, that only reflects the voices of the common people about whom Guthrie wrote and sung. The show is directed by Tod Petersen, who is also the music director.
Lee, who has spent a decade as a touring singer/songwriter, is the most polished, but all step forward to shine in Guthrie's shadow. Pence totally sells out to perform "Hard, Ain't it Hard" with Danciu, while van Meter and Burdt deliver mournful and affecting versions of "Nine Hundred Miles" and "Deportee" back-to-back. The entire ensemble's best moment might come on "Ain't Gonna Be Treated This Way."
Lyrics that jump out include "Every good man has a little hard luck sometime," which is in stark contrast to what we hear so often today, that hard luck only happens to those who deserve it.
Guthrie, who died of Huntington's Disease in 1967 at age 55, influenced the folk protest movement and a generation of artists. One wonders where that tradition is today. It is certainly not part of the mainstream in the way it was 50 years ago, which makes the Commonweal's welcome production of "Woody Guthrie's American Song" all the more timely and important.