SONORA -- It's striking how contemporary Woody Guthrie's songs seem even though they were written decades ago.
He wrote about struggling working people trying to make ends meet, harsh bosses and abused, forgotten immigrants. The details have changed but the issues remain the same. No wonder the popularity of the folk singer never seems to lag.
Stage 3 Theatre is the latest local group to present a tribute to him, with Peter Glazer's spirited musical "Woody Guthrie's American Song." As with Prospect Theater Project's Guthrie show, "Hard Travelin'," a couple of summers ago in Modesto, the production is getting an enthusiastic audience response.
On opening night Friday, the crowd sang along to several of the songs and constantly tapped its feet and clapped to the beat. Other times, for the ballads, the audience sat in rapt attention and awe. People really are touched by this music because of its rawness and honesty.
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Directed by Don Bilotti and Dennis Brown, the musical tells the story of Guthrie's life in his own words, with the five cast members splitting up the speaking duties. Nobody plays Guthrie; instead, the performers take turns serving as narrator and acting out short scenes.
They talk about Guthrie's birth in 1912 in Oklahoma, his travels around the country, riding the rails, his two marriages and his diagnosis with Huntington's disease (he died at age 55 in 1967). Audiences will be interested to know that the show covers Guthrie's experiences in California's agricultural areas -- the migrant farmworkers he met, the blazing hot summers and the sky-high expenses.
Cast members Jeff Cooper, Hoyt Cory, Richard Sholer, Lillian McLeod and Christy Nava can sing and have plenty of energy and passion. Though they sometimes overdo it and make their voices sound shrill, they show an understanding and love of the timeless songs.
While it's enjoyable to hear the upbeat numbers like "This Land is Your Land," "Bound For Glory" and "Do Re Mi," some of the most engaging songs are the quieter pieces. The harmonies in the ballads like "Worried Man" and "Deportee" are gorgeous.
A few times Friday, some of the singers appeared to forget their words, but that problem no doubt will be resolved as the performances continue.
The show has an inviting informal feel, as if a bunch of friends have gathered for a musical jam session.
Wearing patched jeans, cowboy hats and boots, the singers accompany themselves on guitar and banjo, with backup from onstage musicians Rick Barlow on fiddle, banjo, mandolin and guitar and Ron Cotnam on upright bass.
Cotnam also is responsible for the cozy set, which has the feel of a barn. Matthew Leamy contributes interesting lighting effects that give the appearance of a thunderstorm.
Though it deals with the challenges of life, the show is filled with hope. Guthrie's message was that all people are important and deserve a good life no matter how modest their circumstances. This uplifting production makes a great start for Stage 3's 2008 season.
Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan can be reached at 578-2313 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
'Woody Guthrie's American Song'
Where: Stage 3 Theatre, 208 S. Green St., Sonora
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes, including an intermission
When: 7 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays; through March 23
Information: 536-1778 or www.stage3.org
Good * Fair