nytheatre.com review by Michael Ferrell
August 13, 2007
In the Iowa State Daily, Farmer Song's co-author Joe Hynek was quoted as saying, "In every community it seems like there's a local jam band that gets together on Saturday night to play music. Those are the people I wrote the musical for."
I wanted to see Farmer Song because it appeared to have a lot of heart and deal with important issues. It seemed devoid of irony, sarcasm, gimmicks, and exclamation points. I'm happy to say that my expectations were met and I was honored to be let into the world of Joe Hynek and his band of Iowan farmers.
I would also be lying if I said Farmer Song is anything but a wholesome, well-intentioned, community theatre production from Iowa. New York audiences make no mistake, the actors in this show are farmers, engineers, and pharmacy technicians; not professional actors. Nor are the writers professional playwrights. Perspective is an important part of whether or not you will enjoy Farmer Song as much as I did.
The play is set in Ellston, Iowa. Population 57. The year is 1982, shortly after the Farm Crisis swept through the Midwest. Basically, because of a series of convoluted government programs and a shifting economy, farmers went broke (not poor, as the play points out) trying to maintain their old way of life. As the play opens, we are introduced to Becky, who lives with her parents, Frank and Ruth, and is in love with her "Hometown Boyfriend," Carl, our protagonist. Frank is forced to sell his farm and the ambitious Carl decides to buy the land. Carl sets out against all odds to make a living farming, on the way encountering a very funny character (played with silly delight by Bill Hynek) who sells him a rickety Russian tractor. Carl marries Becky, much to the dismay of her father, and the struggle begins to wear on the newlyweds.
The songs in Farmer Song are homegrown, simple bluegrass/country songs. Some of them are infectious, like "I Like Baling," an homage to, well, baling hay. And some I would put up against any musical theatre love song, like, "Wild Rose," a song that manages to make the simplest love story heart-wrenching. The songs work best when sung by the two young leads, Joe Hynek, playing Carl, and Amy Burgmaier (who has a great voice), playing Becky. Throughout, the lyrics contain gems like "Your retirement plan is the kids you raise" and the scenes contain fantastic lines like
BECKY: I must smell like a cow.
CARL: Lucky you, that's my favorite scent.
Which I think is only a half-joke.
When Becky is singing about Carl, she brags, "He's got more muscle than a movie star 'cause he works like a man." Besides liking this line a lot, I also think it describes what this musical has over some of the slick, professional musicals playing in New York right now. Only substitute "heart" for "muscle."
The play ends on a high note, and a progressive message from the people who are "Honest, Stubborn, and Simple." This particular local jam band from this small community in Iowa should be proud of their show here in New York, even if they didn't write it for us.