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'Steel' Adds Depth to Fable of John Henry


The legend of John Henry, the steel-driving railroad man who gave up his life in a titanic clash of man and machine, would seem a natural for a musical. After all, the legend itself, which can be traced back to the early 1870s, has been passed down in music--a famous folk song, one with many variants. A few versions present John Henry as an inveterate womanizer killed by a jealous lover. Most, however, cast him in the heroic mold, as a valiant African American champion who martyrs himself in a noble cause.

In "Steel: John Henry & the Shaker," a world premiere musical at [Inside] the Ford, playwright Leon Martell opts for an appropriately heroic interpretation of this enduring American legend. Whether founded in fact or wholly fictitious, John Henry has obvious historical significance, both as a post-slavery paradigm of black proficiency and as a proletarian prototype in an era before the rise of American labor unions.

Martell understands the importance of those archetypes. His John Henry, played with (literally) towering resonance by the imposing Michael A. Shepperd, is a legend incarnate--noble, sage, larger than life. Yet Martell wisely balances the legendary with a gripping coming-of-age story, that of young Willy, John Henry's "shaker," i.e., the young man who performed the perilous task of holding the steel rods steady for John Henry's pounding hammer. Played with affecting passion by Randy Guiaya, Willy must wrestle with those moral dilemmas that John Henry is above. It's a clever augmentation that lends the familiar fable emotional depth it would otherwise have lacked.

The problem with "Steel" lies not in its story, but in its music. There's a jarring disparity between the folkloric heft of Martell's story and the anemic, experimental rhythms of composer Penka Kouneva's music.

Sometimes, as in John Henry's bluesy number "This Hammer," the twain meet, and the toe taps. More often, the songs seem desultory and tuneless. In her musical melange, Kouneva only occasionally references the traditional American music that this piece cries out for.

That's a shame, and the production's fatal flaw. Musical director David O, who also heads up the production's live band, valiantly attacks the obliquities of Kouneva's score, with intermittent success. Director Wendy McClellan draws thoughtful performances from her cast. Ameenah Kaplan's wonderfully percussive choreography is memorable. Among the lesser roles, Christopher Gerson stands out as a simple laborer haunted by visions of cave-ins and catastrophe. Akeime Mitterlehner's set, Jerry Browning's lighting and Barbara M. Lempel's costumes are all top-notch.

Now, for a little more indigenous "oomph" to that music.

"Steel: John Henry & the Shaker," [Inside] the Ford, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Los Angeles. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Feb. 24. $15-$20. (323) 461-3673. Running time: 2 hours.

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