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Life's Travails, Set to Music

By JOEL HENNING
Wall Street Journal
February 1994

Proust wrote that the souls of those we have lost are captured in natural objects: animals, plants, stones, pastries. If we come upon them and recognize their voices, they return to share our lives. But it depends on chance whether or not we can recapture our pasts "before we ourselves must die." Michael Smith, with coauthor Peter Glazer, has recaptured his in an irresistibly evocative musical theater piece called "Michael, Margaret, Pat & Kate," and subtitled "A Musical Reminiscence."

The objects in which Mr. Smith's lost souls lurk include the gloom of the confessional and the hard classroom benches of Our Lady of the Valley in Orange, N.J., a scratchy recording of Mr. Smith singing "Paper Doll" at age four, the smell of surf at the local beach, car trips to Pennsylvania, the beer stench on his father's breath, the reek of kerosene and raw lumber in his first girlfriend's house across the tracks, the sound of the radio playing Nat King Cole singing "Somewhere Along the Way," the sharp '40s suits and fedoras of the band in the brightly lit gazebo, Florida's clear blue skies, St. Petersburg's Spanish buildings, "all in wild pastels."

All these and many more are evoked in an autobiographical evening of consistently funny and moving monologue and song. Mr. Smith is a folk singer who has composed music for Steve Goodman, Jimmy Buffet and the Tony Award-winning Steppenwolf Theatre Company production of "The Grapes of Wrath." For "Michael, Margaret, Pat & Kate," he composed and performs a dozen numbers in styles ranging from folk to rock. But he has also assembled artifacts of his life, including family photos and a lifetime of letters from his three sisters.

This might have amounted to no more than a vehicle for Mr. Smith to vent anger and despair. His life has had more than its share of dark moments. He abandoned his first real girlfriend when she got pregnant. He spent many nights sleeping on the empty stages of the coffeehouses that booked him for pennies. His father committed suicide. The play might also just as well have been a set of memories of abuse from siblings, parents and priests, a savage attack on the Mother Church, or another debate about family values. Instead, we are entertained and moved by a man who seems almost impossibly comfortable in his own skin. He never became a star. "About five folk singers got to be millionaires, and three of them were Bob Dylan." His sisters ended up plump, responsible adults, raising children of their own. "I'm too short to be a grandmother," says Kate in one of her last letters.

This is a one-man show and yet it's not. Sharing the stage are four additional musicians: Pat Fleming on guitar, Joel MacMillan, bass, Miriam Sturm, violin and Willy Schwarz, accordion. They do more than play music. They play roles: Uncle Johnny back from Burma after World War II; Margaret at age three, messing up an amateur recording session; coffeehouse beatniks, singers, dancers, friends and whatever else needs filling out. Mr. Smith is especially blessed with the presence of the radiant and talented Ms. Sturm, who recently has made serious contributions to the success of several other theater pieces including the Goodman Theatre's "Black Snow" and the Broadway production of "Grapes of Wrath."

An accomplished fiddler, Ms. Sturm also moves like a storybook princess. Soon, no playwright who can cast Ms. Sturm will want to miss the chance to create a fiddle-playing presence on stage. Co-author Peter Glazer also directs "Michael, Margaret, Pat & Kate." Mr. Glazer has made a specialty of the small, ensemble musical which seems to do especially well in Chicago. He directed the local production of the cabaret-style "Pump Boys and Dinettes," which ran for five years, and created Woody Guthrie's "American Song," currently ending a long run here. His experience serves him well with Mr. Smith's autobiography.

The script is dense and may be a bit too long in the first act, but Mr. Glazer provides the essential dam to Mr. Smith's stream of consciousness. James Dardenne's set imaginatively suggests the physical artifacts of Mr. Smith's remembrances. He has collected lots of furniture and stained glass of the kind popular in the '40s and '50s, and provides old-fashioned windows that serve also as projection screens for the essential family photos.

The best was taken of Margaret's first communion and has the four cleaned and polished siblings lined up with their hands folded the way the nuns taught them. In this photo, Michael, the oldest and tallest, has his head cut off. I don't know whether Mr. Smith intended his headless image as more than a funny snapshot of this loving young family, but it not only represents what's wonderful but also what's missing in this work: "Michael, Margaret, Pat & Kate" is a work of Mr. Smith's heart, not his head. He doesn't explore his father's suicide. All we learn is that Mom and Dad were having arguments, and the kids "hated the smell of beer."

The evening's climax, however, is Mr. Smith's simple, painful, song, "I Brought My Father With Me." It is a beautiful moment. And maybe the reason that Mr. Smith can offer us this moment is because he can let go and forgive without understanding why. Maybe he's got the right idea.

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