The Raven Players bring live outdoor entertainment to Healdsburg’s Downtown Plaza with their production of Woody Guthrie’s American Song: A Truly American Musical. Peter Glazer’s adaptation of the writings and songs of “America’s premiere folk poet” runs weekends July 1 through July 10.
The show, which premiered in 1988, has Northern California roots as playwright Glazer is an Associate Professor and former Chair of the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Mill Valley’s Marin Theatre Company have hosted previous productions.
Raven Players founder Joe Gellura is directing the production which is not a traditional musical biography or “jukebox musical”. “Guthrie wasn’t much of a musician”, said Gellura, “He admitted that he stole liberally from old Appalachian and Irish tunes of his youth. The power is in what he said. He was writing in a time of turmoil that makes today’s headlines seem like tired whining. Some of his song lyrics read like an investigative article from the Press Democrat. He wrote about people who were trying to achieve or keep a place in the great middle class that drove the engine of our economic successes.”
No single actor plays Guthrie. Instead, three performers (Matthew Witthaus, Tim Shippey, and Hans Grin) provide the voice of Woody Guthrie at various stages in his life. Five other performers (Cecelia Brenner, Molly Larsen-Shine, Grace Warden, Lindsay John, and Tika Moon) play various hobos, Okies, saloon keepers, and others that Guthrie met along the way.
Several of the cast do double duty as musicians and join Karl Byrn, Carolyn Dixon, and Kendra Levitan to bring such familiar Guthrie tunes as “Bound for Glory”, “Pastures of Plenty”, and “This Land is Your Land” to life. The instrumentation is folk – harmonicas, banjo, mandolin, guitar, bass, fiddle.
While there have been innumerable concerts in the Healdsburg Plaza, this is the first time that the city has okayed an event that has multiple performance dates. The venue does present some interesting challenges. “Lighting and sound projection are big worries for example”, said Gellura, “and what happens if it’s a windy evening?” Nevertheless, Gellura and his cast can’t wait to get the show up and running.
Originally set for a November 2020 opening, Raven Players Artistic Director Steven David Martin saw it as an opportunity for “an election time reminder of what a real populist and a real patriot looks and sounds like.” After two pandemic-related postponements, Martin still feels that the current political environment adds to the show’s relevancy. “As we see the rich, the powerful, the old boys network continue to curtail, or just blatantly steal our rights, it’s important to remember that this land really is our land, that it does belong to you and me, no matter our color, religion, political beliefs, gender or sexual identity. And in the true Guthrie spirit, freedom and equality is always worth fighting for.”
“Guthrie would love this”, Gellura concluded, “Anyone can come to the performances. They can stop by for a few songs or stay for the whole enchilada. It’s free. Bring your picnic lunch and relax a while.”
‘Woody Guthrie’s American Song: A Truly American Musical’ runs through July 10 in Healdsburg Plaza, Matheson St and Healdsburg Ave, Healdsburg. Fri- Sun, 7:30 pm. Free general admission (bring your own chair/blanket). $25 VIP seating available. 707.433.6335 raventheater.org
Photos by Ray Mabry