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'Michael' Plays Nicely As a Family Portrait

By Hedy Weiss
Theater Critic, Chicago Sun-Times
February 4, 1994

Now in his early 50s, Michael Smith is a songwriter and folksinger whose work has been performed by the likes of Steve Goodman and Jimmy Buffet and whose career in the theater was jump-started just a few years ago when he wrote a stunning score for the Tony Award-winning Steppenwolf Theatre production of "The Grapes of Wrath." He gave the Joad family their traveling music.

Smith also is a man with a family history of his own that is at once mundane and remarkable. And his portrayal of that family, and its legacy, is the subject of "Michael, Margaret, Pat & Kate," a show that he and his collaborator, director Peter Glazer, have dubbed "a musical reminiscence."

Part memory of a Catholic childhood, part celebration of a close-knit Irish family, and part requiem for a lost father forged in the noble tradition of James Agee's A Death in the Family, "Michael, Margaret, Pat and Kate" is a theatrical hybrid. Like Glazer's much-heralded production "Woody Guthrie's American Song," it unspools the events and psychological development of a lifetime through the meticulous stringing together of songs—most of them Smith's creations, and the rest standards or novelty pieces that conjure up the emotions of a particular time and place.

Backed by an onstage band of four exceptional musicians who participate in the story like a modern Greek chorus, Smith slowly explains what makes him tick with ever-increasing intimacy, almost as if he were unraveling his darkest secrets over the course of many psychiatric sessions. Happily, though, there is no jargon here; only plain-speaking, streaked with the poetry of memory.

The oldest child in an Irish Catholic family from New Jersey, Smith was one of six children, though he was closest to his three oldest sisters—Margaret, Pat and Kate. And it is they who are his silent companions and guardian angels throughout the show.

The show's first act is an understated (at times monotonous) recounting of a Catholic childhood, complete with stories of the nuns at school and early crushes, but animated by the tremendous affection Smith shows for his siblings, whose old photographs are periodically flashed on a screen. Yet the most vivid picture to slowly come into focus is of Smith's father, Gene, who committed suicide when the boy was in his early teens. The event clearly scarred the musician in countless ways, and it alienated him from the church that made his father's act seem so sinful.

In the show's second act, the story opens up and gains a compelling momentum, as Smith recounts how his mother moved the family to Florida. He richly evokes the drive from North to South, and the change in the atmosphere and culture from cold, hard, ethnic New Jersey to the Sun Belt of the late 1950s. He playfully remembers his early years in the world of the Beat coffeehouses and folk clubs, touches on the elusiveness of fame and confesses the pain of fleeing from a woman who loved him and with whom he fathered a child that was given up for adoption. Finally, he returns to his beloved sisters and shows us how they have turned—a tribute to three strong, decent but unexceptional women.

Smith is a compact man with a slight but perpetual sneer, and he dresses here in the style of his childhood hero, Roy Rogers, in brown jeans and vest and cowboy boots. He is not an immediately appealing personality onstage, but hugging his guitar, he grows on you as the poetic side of his spirit overwhelms the protected, sardonic side, and his pinched voice suggests long-buried pain.

Smith's superb band includes Pat Fleming (guitar), Joel MacMillan (bass), Willy Schwarz (accordion) and Miriam Sturm, a driving, passionate violinist with a wonderful dramatic presence. Together they form a grand surrogate family.

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