- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 24, 2001

The nameless narrator of "Songs From the Tall Grass" seems a rickety device from which to hang a show about prairie life in the 1800s.

The man opens the show by comparing his cushy modern lifestyle to that of the pioneers, who battled insects, draconian bankers and illness to forge a piece of Americana for their own.

It should not work, or at least should cause you to shudder at its sticky sentimentality. But it doesn't.

Indeed, the world premiere of "Songs From the Tall Grass" at Ford's Theatre strikes nary an off note throughout its homespun musical vignettes.

And, oh, what potential exists in the book, derived from authentic era songs, letters and journals, for a cloying production.

Instead, a knockout cast led by Scott Waara's Narrator runs through the affectionate homage to our pioneering forefathers.

"Tall Grass" is stitched together from century-old writings by a quartet of talented scribes, but its music bears enough of a modern polish to send home its multilayered message. Sung chiefly with piano, violin and guitar accompaniment, its barrage of numbers charms while depicting an American spirit rarely found in modern drama.

Mr. Waara's Narrator opens the show by comparing his family's car ride to discover its roots to the families who set them down in the first place.

"Music was something everyone made," he says of that era, explaining why such a tale should be sung more than spoken.

It helps that the theatre's rich acoustics cradle every note like a newborn.

We soon meet a large pioneer brood, led by a strong-willed Mother (Teri Bibb) and stern Father (John Antony). Through song and prose, we watch their clan grow and later experience the kind of sudden death that was so much a part of lives in the "soddies" — homes constructed of sod.

The homesteaders clung to their simple pleasures, like the wonder of a glass window in their unsteady sod house. Their songs assuaged the pain of loss and let them bask in the celebrations along the way.

The opening numbers, like the rousing "Home on the Prairie," reveal a contented side of their formidable lives. A tiny fear blossoms that the images being conjured will be rosier than reality.

But much of the music is elegiac in nature, and the narrative pulls few punches in depicting the rigors of their existence.

A subdued version of "Home on the Range" lends the tune an emotional depth rarely hinted at in other guises.

"Boll Weevil," a rockin' rebuttal to the insects devouring their crops, bears too much Elvis-style swagger for its own authentic good, though. It's the evening's sole backfire.

The adult cast invests the material with an irrepressible joy, as if each had sorted through piles of dusty material to uncover the music on his or her own.

Of particular note is Cliff Bemis' earthy baritone and oversized dance steps as the bachelor who marries the family's oldest daughter.

The child performers, donning mustard-colored dresses and snappy overalls, consistently charm with their humble performances. Their stylized numbers teeter toward banality without once falling over. Tiny, curly mopped Emilyann Cummings swipes her scenes without wrinkling her dress.

The theatre's majestic set, a simple space awash in blue, gold and maroon straw imagery, changes little throughout the performance. Above it, though, runs a montage of vintage photographs. The quiet portraits, featuring steely eyed pioneer men and wizened women, add to the evening's Technicolor pictures of prairie days.

Part historical lecture, part Broadway-style musical, "Songs From the Tall Grass" takes pains to show how the persevering nature of our pioneers still exists in us all, if we could only shut off the VCR and log off the Internet long enough to remember.

Three and a half out of four stars

WHAT: "Songs From the Tall Grass"WHERE: Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. NWWHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, 1 p.m. Thurdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays, through June 3TICKETS: $27 to $43PHONE: 703/218-6500 or 800/955-5566

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