Woody Guthrie’s American Song

“Woody Guthrie’s American Song” Rings True

Prepared to be entertained – and to reflect on history - when you enter the Cinnabar Theater, a little barn-like place tucked into a hill just north of the Petaluma Outlet complex.  Grab refreshments and snag a seat and table, ‘cause you’re in for a good time at this cabaret-style venue.

The house lights dim and performers stroll in from the side entrances, singing a cacophony of the classic folk songs we remember (and a few we don’t).  This story of America in the early 1930’s bears an uncanny parallel to many events today.

Woody Guthrie was an itinerant poet who wrote songs – and books – chronicling this desperate decade.  Taxes blew out of control, homes were lost to foreclosures, scarce jobs were poorly paid, and public sentiment weighed against immigrants.  Tent settlements sprouted up along train routes.  Guthrie wrote “Bound for Glory”, “Hard, Ain’t It Hard”, “The Sinking of the Reuben James”, “Deportee”, and “This Land is Your Land” before his death in 1967.  He lived with - and had his pulse on - the common man.  Guthrie wrote from the heart and hit the soul.  Folk-song luminaries like Judy Collins and countless coffee-house troubadours continue to shed light on his talents. 

“American Song” is the chronicling of Guthrie’s life, and how this hard-travelin’ man was the voice of struggling families of his time.  The poignant and promising stories are enacted in song, with narration to keep the flow.  Audiences are stunned to realize that the music and stories resonate today.  Listen to “I’m a Jolly Banker” or “Do Re Mi” and judge for yourself.  This show overflows with moments of desperation, greed, tears, and injustice, yet always returns to determination and triumph.

The well-credentialed actors include Dave Zirbel, Tim Sarter, Chris Rovetti, Shannon Rider Urquhart, Jim Peterson, Brent Lindsay, Mary Gannon-Graham, and Tyler Costin.  They speak, sing, and play instruments onstage, drawing us in to a time when music was the poor-man’s entertainment that brought people together.  They switch roles; they switch instruments.  Each possesses an energy and inner resolve appropriate to the character they play.  Worthy of note are the sweet harmonies between Gannon-Graham and Urquhart, which soar on wings to the beams of the roof.  The appropriately meager depression-era costumes are the work of Pamela Johnson, from suspender overalls to dusty felt hats that men stuff in their back pockets.

Musicians Peterson, Zirbel, Rovetti and Sarter delight the audience with guitars, fiddle, mandolin, banjo, harmonica, a big fat bass, and a few other esoteric instruments.  Worth noting is that Peterson also did the show’s musical direction.  A few weeks ago, the musicians surprised Whole Foods customers with a “flash” – a sudden appearance singing and playing - in the produce department.  Astonished patrons put down their oranges and eggplants to clap and sing “This Land is Your Land”.

It’s a gift to be able to weave a compelling story from a collection of songs and journal entries, making a show more than just a musical performance.  Broadway and Las Vegas have done this successfully using the work of popular songwriters like Lennnon & McCartney (“Love”), Frankie Vallee (“Jersey Boys”), and Billy Joel (“Movin’ Out”).  “Woody Guthrie’s American Song” was conceived and adapted by Peter Glazer, an award-winning playwright who teaches theater arts at UC Berkeley.  Glazer links more than two dozen of Guthrie’s most-loved works with historically accurate vignettes from the 30’s and 40’s, with B&W photos on a screen behind certain scenes.  Director Elizabeth Craven takes the script and turns eight talented performers and one small space into a convincing and cohesive ensemble performance.

Cinnabar Theater ratchets up their entertainment bar as “Woody Guthrie’s American Song” is co-produced by the Heritage Music Foundation.  The music is spot-on thanks to a partnership with the Sonoma County Folk Society and the Northern California Bluegrass Society.  This poignant production satisfies from start to finish, and is a “must see” remembrance of American spunk.

Playing now through January 23rd at Cinnabar Theater, Petaluma.  Phone (707) 763-8920 or Cinnabar Theater