Eventually, American theater will run out of 20th-century musical troubadours to venerate. In the meantime, there is Woody Guthrie's American Song, a sort-of biography told in tunes and travelogues written by Guthrie himself. And though we may leave the playhouse knowing as little about Guthrie the folk singer as we did before arriving, we depart having been roused by his many familiar tunes about the turbulent times in which he lived and by the deep talents of the eight performers who've presented them.
The show has been playing pretty much nonstop since the late '80s after a stellar debut in New Hampshire. Its Arizona Theatre Company production appears to be a road company of sorts to which ATC has contributed technical and design elements; regardless of who's responsible, Woody is an exceptional — and exceptionally rambling — retelling of America's dark Depression.
It's ironic that a tale of American storytelling should be so handily expurgated — Guthrie's emotional instability and leftist politics are merely hinted at between songs — and ironic, too, that Guthrie himself wouldn't have made it to a first callback for this slick tuner, whose gifted cast sing glossy two- and three-part harmonies of songs made famous by their author's atonal warbling. Yet the beauty of Guthrie's poetry, depicting the poverty and class struggles of the Great Depression, isn't muted by glossy arrangements. Thanks in good part to warm, spare arrangements played by a trio of crack musicians, Guthrie's songs — like "Do Re Mi," about Dust Bowl refugees turned away at the California border, and "The Sinking of the Reuben James," about a U.S. destroyer sunk by a German submarine — retain their folkie flavor. (The unbilled stars of this show are the photographers whose evocative black-and-white images of a ravaged America fill screens on either side of the stage.)
The show's high points are transcendent: "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)," a sad and timely song about Mexican immigrant farm workers whose deportation airplane crashed, is sung with tear-filled eyes by the entire company; "Ludlow Massacre," which opens Act Two, offers a stirring a cappella performance accompanied only by bandleader David P. Jackson's dramatic hand percussion.
And, of course, there's "This Land Is Your Land," the American anthem that is Guthrie's best-known tune and the song that brings the audience for his musical biography to their feet just before curtain. Having sung along to songs about the horrors of the Dust Bowl and the anguish of displaced citizens, and having witnessed a sanitized version of the life story of one of them, we — people in evening attire who can afford $50 theater tickets — leave the theater on a hopeful note, humming a tune we've known all our lives, a song about our own entitlement. What, one wonders, would Woody Guthrie have written about that?