Inspiring tale of pioneers, pride and pain

Review: In `Songs from the Tall Grass,' audiences are given a memorable glimpse of homesteaders and their joys and struggles on the prairie.

March 24, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Every now and then a show comes along that seems especially well suited to Ford's Theatre. "Songs from the Tall Grass" is such a show.

A musical about a chapter of American history, the small-scale show is a logical choice for America's most historic theater with its steady tourist clientele. Several school groups were at the matinee I attended, and this account of 19th-century life on the prairie easily held their interest.

For young people, part of the appeal no doubt stems from the fact that six of the 13 cast members are children. But the framework of the piece is also readily accessible, using a fictitious family to link adaptations of authentic songs, journal entries, diaries and letters. Indeed, it would be difficult to think of a show more deserving of the designation: "for the entire family" (complete with the level of innocuousness that phrase usually entails).

"Songs from the Tall Grass" came about after a California-based composer named Randy Hale and his writer wife, Emily Corey, loaded their kids into the family car and set off for the nation's heartland to learn about the lives of their ancestors. On stage, Hale's part is taken by a modern-day Narrator, amiably played by Scott Waara.

When the Narrator explains the rationale for the trip, we hear the voices of his children protesting off stage. After the family's 19th-century counterpart takes the stage, we see the pioneer family's two older children fighting in the back of what serves as their Conestoga wagon.

But while family dynamics may not have changed, the musical makes it abundantly clear that our way of life has changed drastically. Taking advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862, which offered 160 acres to settlers who worked the land for five years, the family - identified merely as Father (Scott Antony), Mother (Teri Bibb), Daughter (Tiffany Fraser) and Son (Christopher Winsor) - heads West.

When Mother sees the one-room sod hut Father has built for them, she bursts into tears. But far worse hardships follow. The first act ends in death, and death remains a constant presence. Much of the second act salutes the fortitude of the women of the prairie, who actually had a higher survival rate than the men.

The musical numbers range from the still-popular "Home on the Range" (performed in the production's most amusing scene, which begins as a wake and literally raises the dead) to the jaunty "Boll Weevil" (sung by bopping children, even though the insect was the scourge of the Plains) to "Brave Old Plow" (a song performed a cappella by a male quartet).

There's a pleasant country flavor to most of the music that carries over to Kay Cole's choreography. However, Will Mackenzie's direction is largely unimaginative, especially for characters who were forced to rely on ingenuity to survive. And though pioneer life was not only dangerous but dirty, a squeaky clean aura permeates the proceedings.

The book (scripted by Corey, Hale and TV veterans Michael A. Ross and Phoef Sutton) includes many intriguing nuggets, particularly in terms of the derivation of such expressions as "dead ringer" and "raining cats and dogs."

But several important aspects of prairie life are glossed over. Native Americans barely figure into the narrative, and while we learn that a half million of the homesteaders were European immigrants, black settlers - a community compellingly explored in Pearl Cleage's "Flyin' West" - don't even earn a mention.

The show ends with the song, "A Hundred Years from Now," in which Waara leads the cast in imagining such modern marvels as "buildings that will scrape the sky" and "machines that fly."

Whatever gaps there may be in "Songs from the Tall Grass," it certainly leaves audiences with a greater appreciation of how grueling life was for the brave homesteaders.

It's not a deep or original notion, but it's a worthy one to remember in an age of cyberspace conveniences.

`Songs'

Where: Ford's Theatre, 511 Tenth St., N.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, matinees at 1 p.m. Thursdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Through June 3

Admission: $27-$43

Call: 202-347-4833

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