Blake Thomas, Mary Fox and the cast of Our Town; February 26, 2011; Yellow Tree Theater, Osseo, MN
Our Town is not a musical, but the Yellow Tree Theater’s production of Thorton Wilder’s classic play about life in a small town used music as another of their props. And it was a big one seeing as how the stage didn’t contain many of them. There was the choir practice led by drunken choirmaster Simon Stimson, with a few folks intentionally singing off key. There was the haunting banjo that the Stage Manager (Blake Thomas) played during a scene. All of it added so much to a play that was already pretty terrific to begin with. I’ve only seen Our Town once before, a film version of the play performed with Paul Newman as the Stage Manager. Since we both name Newman as our favorite actor, I told Blake he had some big shoes to fill. After seeing the play, I gave the edge to Blake. After all, Paul Newman can’t play banjo.
I’ve always known Blake to be a man of many talents, for instance I couldn’t believe that he did all the music for the soundtrack they had available. He’s an amazing guitar player, but I had no idea he could play banjo and violin so proficiently. I also had no idea he could act. I’m not sure why I was so shocked, he looked like he had been doing it all his life. He was more natural and graceful than anyone on stage. He was even more natural during the short concert before the play. All the cast members gathered in the lobby to sing songs and those that could play an instrument did. There was guitar and piano, an upright bass and even a clarinet. All of the cast members were enthusiastic in singing some classic songs from the history of folk.
My favorite of these is “By the Banks of the Ohio,” a classic murder for love ballad in which the narrator kills the only woman he loves because she would not be his bride. It’s been recorded by a multitude of artists including both the Carter Family and Johnny Cash. My favorite version prior to this one was Mike Ireland and Holler’s. I didn’t think it could get any more poignant than that, but Blake’s version may top it. Mary Fox also got her share of the spotlight with another Carter Family favorite “Single Girl, Married Girl.” Also remarkable is how great Mary and Blake sound together on a number of songs. The favorite of the cast seemed to be “Big Balls in Nashville.” Stop giggling, they are talking about a fancy dance. Sure they are, the same way AC/DC was.