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This band is your band: Lubben Brothers meet Woody Guthrie in West Palm Beach

In the 20 years that “Woody Guthrie's American Song” has been performed, it is hard to imagine a more perfect union than the one formed onstage between the words and music of the iconic dreamer and the remarkable musicianship and humble idealism of West Palm Beach’s Lubben Brothers.

Opening July 13 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, “American Song” includes much of the rambling folksinger’s best-known music and excerpts from his prose writing, at once a love letter to a nation and a curative plea for it to live up to its ambitious ideals.

Conceived and adapted by Peter Glazer in 1988, the musical follows Guthrie from the Dust Bowl to California and east to New York in a story told by actors accompanied onstage by a small band on more than two dozen songs, including “Bound for Glory,” “Pastures of Plenty,” “Hard Ain’t It Hard,” “The Sinking of the Reuben James,” the soulful “Deportee” and the iconic anthem “This Land Is Your Land.”

A New York Times reviewer said the show “manages to find both the high beauty and the earthly humor of Guthrie's love affair with America.”

In the Palm Beach Dramaworks production, Guthrie’s songs will be brought to three-dimensional life by Michael, Tom and Joshua Lubben, classically trained 23-year-old triplets who will accompany the actors on 20 instruments over the course of the performance, from slide guitar and mandolin to harmonica and hammer dulcimer.

The Lubben brothers (it’s pronounced LUB-in) did a fair amount of rambling in their youth, thanks to their father’s job. After a stint in Coral Springs, they spent most of their home-schooled youth in rural Iowa and Minnesota, returning to South Florida on music scholarships at Palm Beach Atlantic University, where they graduated a little over a year ago.

They are not identical triplets — “Two of us are, but we’re not sure which,” Michael says with a laugh — but each accompanies his angular good looks with a modest Midwestern charm that belies the passionate expressiveness that pours out of them onstage.

Audiences at South Florida festivals and church functions are probably most familiar with the trio as part of the band called the Lubben Brothers, which includes Michael’s wife, Karol, a native of Colombia, and Tom’s wife, Shana Terra. Joshua’s wife, Katie, has also performed with the band.

During weeks of rehearsals for “Woody Guthrie's American Song” the Lubbens have become better ambassadors for their music from the stage. This has included several sets on the sidewalk in front of the Palm Beach Dramaworks theater on West Palm Beach’s bustling Clematis Street.

“Learning to engage with the audience has really helped our performing,” Joshua says. “The way we’re being required to interact with the audience and try to draw them into our world … That acting side of things is actually really helpful to our music, we’ve noticed.”

Describing Guthrie as a great songwriter, if not a great musician, the brothers say the themes of “Woody Guthrie's American Song” dovetail with their purpose as a band.

“It’s not about taking sides, but bringing people together. These songs really could have been written right now. There’s nobody writing these kinds of songs, so we’re glad to bring them back, because they’re so relevant,” Joshua says.

“He wouldn’t call himself political,” Michael says, “but his mission was always for the people of America. And so he ended up writing about a lot of social issues, or tragedies, that he saw. And a lot of those same issues are still going on.”

But the primary goal of the evening is to entertain, and the brothers say the show does just that, even if you’re ambivalent about folk music or Guthrie’s ideals. A highlight, they say, is the song “Do-Re-Mi,” which tells of the California border patrol turning away Dust Bowlers who don’t have the money, the “do-re-mi.”

“It kind of embodies a lot of the message Woody was trying to communicate, and a lot of the stuff that is going on now, too, in America. But it’s a really fun song for the whole cast, too. It’s more upbeat, one everyone can tap their toes to,” Joshua says.

The Lubben Brothers are about to start releasing music from a forthcoming EP (stay tuned at TheLubbenBrothers.com), but their most ambitious new project is the musical “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” based on the Bret Harte short story about a baby born to a prostitute in a failing gold-mining camp. The mother dies in childbirth.

“The baby is left in the hands of the all-male camp. So they decide they are going to take responsibility for this baby: ‘It’s our responsibility. We are the ones that made this happen,’ ” Joshua says.

Michael continues: “The purpose of our musical is to take that and see what happens when those men take on that responsibility, and the innocence of the baby starts to transform everything.”

“The Luck of Roaring Camp” is scheduled to premiere Oct. 4 at Palm Beach Atlantic University, where the brothers were known for impromptu dorm-room jam sessions that drew crowds of other students, many bringing their own instruments.

While the brothers say they are more apt to listen to classical music at home — their playlist includes Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich, John Adams and the Punch Brothers, El Grand Combo and Groupo Niche (thanks to Karol) — they find performing folk music most rewarding.

“What I love about folk music is it’s the best way you relate to your audience,” Joshua says. “You strike in with something everybody knows, and instantly they want to be a part of it with you. … You’re singing toward people and you’re inviting them to enter into that same world. It’s not like you’re just up on a stage and people have come to watch you perform something impressive. They might be really impressed by what you do, but they also feel like they’re a part of it. They are a reason why this music is happening.”

The Palm Beach Dramaworks production of “Woody Guthrie's American Song” will be performed July 13-Aug. 5 at the Don and Ann Brown Theatre, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $75, $15 for students, with a “pay your age” offer for those ages 18-40. A specially priced ($55) preview show is 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 12. Call 561-514-4042 or go to PalmBeachDramaworks.org.

bcrandell@sun-sentinel.com

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