Historically, traditional musicals would build to what was dubbed an 11 o’clock number, a showstopping song that would thrill the audience and stick in theatergoers’ minds as they filed out into the night.
At Palm Beach Dramaworks, “Woody Guthrie’s American Song,” a storytelling revue built around the songs of the prolific and highly influential singer-songwriter, sends its audiences home singing Guthrie’s exultant American anthem, “This Land Is Your Land.” It’s a joyous ending to a show about the work of a complicated, acutely observant artist.
But it isn’t the highlight of the show.
That occurs just after intermission, when singer-actor-musicians Cat Greenfield and Julie Rowe entwine their beautiful voices to deliver Guthrie’s haunting, heartbreaking 1944 song “Ludlow Massacre.”
The women recount Guthrie’s version of the tragic true story of a 1914 Colorado coal miners’ strike. Kicked out of company housing, the men and their families created a tent city that became home to 1,200 souls. Some two dozen people perished when members of the Colorado National Guard and guards from the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company fired on the camp with a machine gun and set fire to the tents, suffocating a group of women and children who were hidden away in a pit for their safety.
That story, as delivered by Greenfield and Rowe, is chilling, unbearably brutal yet vividly evocative, showcasing Guthrie’s extraordinary gifts as a songwriting activist.
Conceived and adapted by Peter Glazer, with orchestrations and vocal arrangements by Jeff Waxman, “Woody Guthrie’s American Song” was created 30 years ago and was previously presented at the Pope Theatre (which became Manalapan’s Florida Stage) in 1993.
Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie, who wrote more than 3,000 songs in a life cut short at 55 by the hereditary Huntington’s Disease, was a writer and American troubadour whose songs captured the struggles of the impoverished, immigrants, union workers, “ordinary” people. His was a restless, complicated life — he married three times and fathered eight children, including “Alice’s Restaurant” singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie — but his effect on the folk scene and other musicians was immense.
“Woody Guthrie’s American Song,” staged at Dramaworks with fluid artistry by Bruce Linser, relates some of the facts of Guthrie’s life but largely lets his music do the communicating. Individually and as a group, Linser’s multifaceted cast of eight plays guitars, mandolins, banjos, the bass, violin, viola, piano, the hammered dulcimer and more. The triplet members of a real-life folk band called the Lubben Brothers — Joshua, Michael and Tom Lubben — are a powerful musical force in the production, as are the five actors.
The three male actors, wondrous singers all, play Guthrie at different ages. Jeff Raab is the young Woody, actor and musical director Sean Powell the politically aware artist, Don Noble the older man staring down Huntington’s, a different kind of enemy. Together, the guys sing “Nine Hundred Miles,” and they take turns with solos and duets.
Greenfield and Rowe achieve a crystalline quality when they join together in singing “I Ain’t Got No Home in the World Anymore,” “Worried Man,” “Ludlow Massacre” and “Union Maid.” Greenfield takes the lead on “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” Rowe on “The Sinking of the Reuben James,” a pair of deeply impactful songs. “Bound for Glory” and “This Land Is Your Land,” two of Guthrie’s best-known songs, feature the company firing on all musical cylinders.
The ever-impressive Dramaworks creative team gets the tone of this one just right.
Michael Amico’s wood-dominant set is evocative of the Depression-era WPA Federal Art Project, and the phrase Guthrie had stuck on his guitar — “This machine kills facists” — makes an appearance. Costume designer Brian O’Keefe puts the cast in clothing that suggest the hardscrabble days of the Dust Bowl and the Depression, and his look for Rowe will make you think of Dorothea Lange’s famous “Migrant Mother” photograph.
Choreographer Christine Kellogg creates movement that seems to flow organically from the music. Lighting designer John D. Hall brushes the stage “sky” with pale beauty, and sound designer Brad Pawlak gives Woody’s wandering band the softly chirping lullaby of crickets to make the night less lonely.
While last summer’s Dramaworks musical “Sweeney Todd” was a knockout, this year’s offering is a more low-key affair. Some may leave wishing they had learned more about the man behind all this music, while others may be struck by just how painfully resonant Guthrie’s words are circa 2018 in this land made for you and me. In any case, “Woody Guthrie’s American Song” is thought-provoking and musically most impressive.
“Woody Guthrie’s American Song” runs through Aug. 5 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., in West Palm Beach. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Tickets cost $75 (students $15, Pay Your Age tickets for theatergoers 18-40). To order, call 561-514-4042 or go to PalmBeachDramaworks.org.