Matthew Lickona 10:56 a.m., May 24
The San Diego Rep has "expanded and enhanced" an earlier draft of this tribute to protest songs, from the American revolution to the Occupy movement.
The idea grabs. Director Todd Salovey originally wanted to showcase Pete Seeger's music, which became ingrained in the country's DNA without being marketed or hyped on the radio. But when Seeger withdrew consent, Salovey and others opened up the concept. But now they need to pin it down. At various points Hammer's s survey of protest songs, at others a history of protest embedded in a history of America, interspersed with soft-sell, cartoony entertainments.
There are far too many reminders about music's value as an instrument of change. The four-person cast preaches the obvious, as if we're so lax we need the repetitions to get the point.
The new version has 25 songs. Each requires an explanation of the evil it rails against (Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, the 1911 Lawrence strike - each sketched out in a terse, Wikipedia style). The pattern's predictable: a song ends, a cast member comes downstage and lectures on the next atrocity. The new version does as much explaining as singing.
It does have strong moments. Jim Mooney (who best captures the spirit of the subject, and whose acoustic guitar work excels) tells how the simple tune "Baa Baa Black Sheep" began as the critique of a medieval economy. Mooney also speaks from personal experience about Vietnam and the draft. Then sings a rousing version of Pete Seeger's "Draft Dodger Rag."
In this instance, the performer connects with the material. Something is at stake, palpably. Too often the performers sing of bygone woes and don't connect, or merely feign a connection. The songs play like museum pieces, without urgency or import (if you're going to sing "We Shall Overcome," don't make it sweet and beautiful; sing it as if you're barefooted and bleeding).
A goodly number of songs and skits are cartoony. Cutting at least half would help, because Hammer feels more like an old-time Hootenanny - a folk songfest - than a to-the-barricades protest piece. Where's the anger? (and where's the music of Joe Hill? He was an icon for Seeger, Guthrie, Dylan and countless others). The sensibility behind the show is inclusive; the sensibility behind many of the songs, however, is us-versus-them divisive.
Protest songs have an urge to fly high and defiantly free (somewhat like the Blues, in that they celebrate as much as they slam). But the production tones down extremes until the end, when Lisa Payton finally gets to cut loose with the hymn "Higher Ground."
Hammer needs to find a way for the songs to inspire, not just entertain.