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Folk singer's memories make for musical gems

By Lawrence Bommer
Chicago Tribune
February 4, 1994

The songwriter's story is often disguised by his work. The good songs stand on their own, while the great ones become everyone's personal testament. In "Michael, Margaret, Pat & Kate," a winning world premiere by Victory Gardens Theater, a noted musician follows his music to its deepest sources.

An autobiographical tale created and performed by folk singer Michael Smith (composer of the score for Steppenwolf Theatre's "The Grapes of Wrath"), "Michael" takes Smith back—both in time, to his childhood in New Jersey and adulthood as a fixture of the Lincoln Avenue folk music scene, and in art, from performance to conception.

Spinning tales steeped in the intimacy of an album (indeed, snapshots are projected on a back window of James Dardenne's lovely colored-glass set), Smith's "musical reminiscence," a collaboration with director Peter Glazer (adapter of "Woody Guthrie's American Song"), regales us with memories so heartfelt and detailed they turn universal.

Speaking softly as if wanting to see everything he says, Smith tells of growing up in New Jersey in the late 1940s with the remarkable sisters who share the title. These were shining years of believing in guardian angels if not in nuns ("Sister Clarissa"), of childhood crushes (the lilting "Looking for Maureen") and cowboy fantasies ("Palomino Pal") that end, 21 years later, in a less than legendary meeting with Smith's boyhood idol Roy Rogers.

Almost everything is grist for Smith's music mill— kicking a can, wild violets in a vacant lot, summers at the sea ("Belmar"), doo-wop street corner ballads ("Fool for Little Falls"), even the haunting suicide of his hard-drinking dad.

Smith's multi-textured songs (artful blends of blues and brighter colors or, in "Vampire," a soulful death wish put to notes) parallel his evocative descriptions—of lush first impressions of Florida, the "coffeehouse days" of the '60s and the brief folk music boom that peaked at Orphans and the Earl of Old Town.

Providing supple backup are Pat Fleming on guitar, Joel MacMillan on bass, Miriam Sturm on violin and Willy Schwarz on accordion. They play like guardian angels.

Throughout, Smith reminds us of his close ties with his strong sisters, personal muses who replenish his roots. We see them in childhood photos and in contemporary snapshots—but, above all, we know them as Smith mingles their letters with his songs. "I know how to make a family," he quietly concludes. We see where he learned it.

band photo
Michael Smith (right) is joined by Pat Fleming (from left) on guitar, Miriam Sturm on violin, Willy Schwartz on accordion and Joel MacMillan on bass in "Michael, Margaret, Pat & Kate."

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