I did keep my eyes on you—and I kept my ears open when you came close to me." So said Woody Guthrie, the great American folksinger and songwriter who died of Huntington's disease at the age of 55. Unable to play a guitar for the last 15 years of his life, Guthrie still left behind a legacy of nearly a thousand folk songs, including "This Land Is Your Land," arguably the greatest American folk song ever written.
Guthrie, a prolific writer of prose as well as songs, wrote down many of his thoughts on music, songwriting and his own place in history, making clear his belief that every song he ever wrote was borrowed, in part, from the people he met throughout his life. The stories in his songs are the story of America, and the hard-hit lives he described so powerfully were the lives of everyday people, struggling to make their way in a difficult world.
Peter Glazer's inventive, supremely satisfying musical tribute Woody Guthrie's American Song, now running at the Cinnabar Theater, does not attempt to tell the story of Guthrie's life. Instead, borrowing bits and pieces of Guthrie's autobiographical writing and including more than two dozen of Guthrie's songs ("Hard Travelin'," "Dust Storm Disaster," "Bound for Glory," "Ludlow Massacre"), Glazer beautifully illustrates the notion that America itself was the co-author of Woody Guthrie's musical canon. Directed by Beth Craven with a first-rate cast of local all-stars and a first rate onstage band (Chris Rovetti, Tim Sarter, Dave Zirbel), the thread of Guthrie's narration is passed from actor to actor, further emphasizing the idea that Woody Guthrie and the American people are one and the same.
The play, originally developed 25 years ago in New Hampshire, was revived last year with Glazer directing at the Marin Theatre Company. It was an elegant and pristine production, with its fair share of chills-up-the-back moments during some of Guthrie's more powerful songs. The Cinnabar production, presented by Craven's new Musical Heritage Theater company, works better, I think. Aided by Cinnabar's cozily intimate environment, and also by Mark Robinson's impressive, all-purpose barn-boxcar-meeting-house set, this production succeeds by sticking its big open heart—Guthrie's heart and soul—right out front and center.
The superb cast—Shannon Rider, Jim Peterson, Mary Gannon Graham and Tyler Costin—is consistently mesmerizing, morphing in and out of various characters as the play traces Guthrie's travels through the Oklahoma dustbowl, Depression-era tent cities and work camps, pre-war New York City and more.
"Just let me be known," Guthrie is quoted late in the show, "as the man who told you somethin' you already knew."
In Woody Guthrie's American Song, what emerges is a vision of Guthrie as not just a fine songwriter (and some of these lyrics, presented this way, might just grab you and shake your socks off, they are so good), but mainly as an artist who saw his job as that of a mirror, absorbing and reflecting back the rough-hewn beauty of a country and of a people that he loved right down to his bones.
'Woody Guthrie's American Song' runs Friday&–Sunday through Jan. 23 at the Cinnabar Theater, 3333 Petaluma Blvd., Petaluma. Friday and Saturday at 8pm; Sunday matinee at 2pm. $20&–$35. 707.763.8920.