Chicago Theater Review: PLOUGHED UNDER: AN AMERICAN SONGBOOK (House Theatre at Chopin)

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by Tony Frankel on April 29, 2013

in Theater-Chicago

PLOUGHED UNDER BY GOOD INTENTIONS AND BAD SONGWRITING

What a great idea: Create modern folk songs to represent Americans whose voices have been given short shrift (or ploughed under) by history. There are boundless unsung heroes who can attain mythical stature through inspirational ditties. Given Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of "Ploughed Under: An American Songbook" House Theatre of Chicago at the Chopin.the little we know factually about the subjects, there is room for embellishment, which is often the key to mythologizing. Examples are Deborah Sampson, an American woman who went incognito as a man in order to serve in the Continental Army during the American Revolution; Virginia Dare, the first child born in the Americas to English parents (and also a member of Roanoke’s “Lost Colony”); and Tisquantum (a.k.a. Squanto), a Native American of the Patuxet tribe who was almost sold into slavery in Spain, but returned to teach the Plymouth Rock Pilgrims how to plant maize.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of "Ploughed Under: An American Songbook" House Theatre of Chicago at the Chopin.However, in producing a barely staged concert of brand new songs such as these, The House Theatre of Chicago forgot one teensy-weensy thing: someone who can write songs. With music and lyrics by Kevin O’Donnell (who also conceived the show), Ploughed Under: An American Songbook contains 19 jaw-dropping numbers that should be preserved for, if nothing else, budding songwriters to learn exactly what not to do when composing: Lyrics are crammed into melodic lines which they don’t fit; syllables are incorrectly stressed musically (“Back before the urban din / Or the smoke of the steam engine”); there are no hooks; at least 7 numbers (I lost count) have “Oh, oh, ohs” and “Ah-ah-ahs” as lyrics; attempts at imagery and poetry often lead to confusion; some stanzas have a rhyme scheme but others in the same song do not; and, worst of all, the songs are pocked with imperfect rhymes (it is simply jarring to the ear when we hear “passed” rhyming with “kidnapped,” “noise” with “Illinois,” and even “south” with “mouths.”

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of "Ploughed Under: An American Songbook" House Theatre of Chicago at the Chopin.Finally, the same pattern – starting with a riff and ending abruptly – occurs song after song after song after song; what is most strange about this is that O’Donnell’s peculiar tunes do not employ complicated chord structure, yet they are forgettable even as we listen to them (I honestly can’t even call these songs “pastiche”). Before the late 1900s, commonplace American workers were usually unschooled (during the Revolution, the majority were also illiterate); hence, they acquired songs and passed them along because they were easy to memorize. There is historical chronology to the tunes in Ploughed Under, but it is the baffling content which makes me wonder what the job of a dramaturg is supposed to be, as this production has not one but two – Chad Kenward and Dixie Belinda Uffelman (who has a US History degree).

Also, the show’s attempt to reinterpret history through song fails utterly because the topics are slanted toward political correctness and smack of righteous self-importance. Mr. O’Donnell, who also directs his over-earnest performers, plays the drums, does some neat experimenting with rhythm and harmonics (“A Bell is Not a Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of "Ploughed Under: An American Songbook" House Theatre of Chicago at the Chopin.Cup”), has fun with authentic-sounding orchestrations (utilizing chains, rocks and jawbones), and has magically transformed the theater into a giant pub-like concert hall; but he fails to tell stories because his songs lack specificity and relatable, inspiring characters; O’Donnell’s unsophisticated, humorless, slanted songs are mostly more concerned with the victimization of those he feels have earned a place in history. I like the idea of anthropomorphizing the Transcontinental Railroad, but I kept waiting for that one plaintive ballad from a personal viewpoint in the style of “The Only Home I Know” from Shenandoah and “Mama, Look Sharp” from 1776; both of these have a simple melody and are sung by characters we do not know, yet we are touched by the characters’ realism and universality: They portray those who engage in conflict in order to keep a place called home, and that is what captures our heart and imagination.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of "Ploughed Under: An American Songbook" House Theatre of Chicago at the Chopin.photos by Michael Brosilow

Ploughed Under: An American Songbook
House Theatre of Chicago at the Chopin Theatre
scheduled to end on June 9, 2013
for tickets, visit http://www.The HouseTheatre.com

for info on this and other Chicago Theater,
visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com

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