Goodnight Irene | Northern Sky Theater

Goodnight Irene

Created by
James Kaplan and Fred Alley

A celebration of the music of the Weavers, the legendary folk quartet that made famous such hits as “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” “If I Had a Hammer,” and the titular “Goodnight Irene.” One of the most popular folk ensembles in American history, the Weavers wrote and performed songs from around the world, bringing vitality to the American folk scene for decades, despite being blacklisted in the 1950s. Since premiering in the fall of 1994, Goodnight Irene has become one of AFT’s most popular productions, having been performed in a variety of other venues across the country and returning twice to AFT’s own stage, in summer 1996 and fall 2005.


Milwaukee Journal


Nostalgia goes on stage in Door County


FISH CREEK, Wis. – Fall visitors to Door County are discovering that musical nostalgia comes in a variety of sizes, shapes and forms.


The venerable Peninsula Players, observing its 60th season of Broadway hit “Forever Plaid,” a musical revue that both spoofs and pays homage to those oh-so-square male harmony quartets of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. If you are middle-aged or older, you remember the four Lads, the Four Freshmen, the Four Preps and others.


American Folklore Theatre, performing in much humbler surroundings, is presenting “Good Night, Irene!” a straight-forward tribute to the early ‘50s folk-singing quartet, the Weavers.


The two shows are diametrically different in approach, tone and intention, and appeal to very different audiences.


“Good Night, Irene!” is a collection of songs written by, arranged by and/or performed by the Weavers. The show, which features four singers-musicians, was assembled by James Kaplan and Fred Alley of the American Folklore Theatre. An informal, chatty narrative between songs tells the story of the Weavers, the only musical group blacklisted during the communist-hunting paranoia of the 1950s.


Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman were the Weavers, and their strong left-wing political and social beliefs were the impetus of much of their music. Support of organized labor and opposition to injustice was their intensely felt theme, and the music reflected that.


American Folklore Theatre’s cast of Amy Chaffee, Karen Mal, Lee Becker and Alley have captured the emotion and passion that drove the songs. Spiced with compelling arrangements, attributed to Kaplan, Mal and the Weavers, “Good Night, Irene!” rises above a simple folk-song concert to become exciting and moving theater.


A sensitive arrangement of the 1957 Jimmie Rodgers hit “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” – the Weavers wrote the lyrics – is a beautifully soft and tender tale of the generational cycle within a family. This version reveals a depth of feeling never heard in the Rodgers hit.


“Lonesome Traveler” seethes with feeling and passion, and “You Old Fool” is simply funny “Hay Una Mujer,” a haunting song about the women who disappeared in Chile after the Allende government was overthrown by the military, is the emotional peak of the evening. The song was written by Holly Near, but Ronnie Gilbert has performed it.


Accompanied on stage by only a couple of high stools and their musical instruments, the AFT foursome possesses a youthful freshness and energy that is quite appealing. Even those who are not particularly attracted to folk music are likely to find “Good Night, Irene!” a little gem.

Door County Advocate
Marty Lash - September 2005


AFT brings music of the Weavers back to life


Now through Oct. 16, American Folklore Theatre is presenting a highly enjoyable revival of music made familiar by the Weavers. The show is called “Goodnight Irene.”


Many may be too young to remember, but the Weavers were instrumental in the folk movement of the 1950s and early 60s. The legendary group put together a body of ballads, comical songs, and most important, music that carried a message. They sang patriotic songs, songs of loss and yearning, music from other countries and tunes that told of the trial s faced by coal mine workers.


The original group, founded in 1948 by Pete Seeger, also featured Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman, and the great vocalist Ronnie Gilbert. Their career was on an upward spiral until The Committee on Un-American Activities accused all but Hays of being Communist. As we were told in the AFT performance, Seeger told the committee he is a loyal American and objected to his right to free-speech being questioned. They continued to produce great music, but after that unfortunate and unfair event, their performing career was never the same.


Whatever one might feel about their politics, there is no denying that the group produced unforgettable music. They brought into people’s homes great songs like “On Top of Old Smoky,” “Guantanamera,” “This Land is Your Land,” and “Michael Row The Boat Ashore.”


The “Goodnight Irene” cast consists of four familiar AFT alumni: Scott Wakefield, Chris Irwin, Claudia Russell, and Eric Lewis. Wakefield, Irwin and Russell appeared in AFT’s wonderful 2003 performance of Simon and Garfunkel songs, “Old Friends.”


I had the pleasure of seeing that show and it was quite special. Wakefield and Irwin have also appeared in the company’s ever-popular “Lumberjacks In Love.”


The late Fred Alley helped create this show, and the group is dedicating the performances to his memory. Alley, of course, was instrumental in developing many fun and entertaining shows for Door County audiences to enjoy.


The new show opened with a rousing version of “Darling Cory.” They moved right into a wonderful favorite, “Kisses Sweeter than Wine.” It has been ages since I heard this song and the quartet’s version was fresh and touching.


I enjoyed their renditions of “Lonesome Traveler,” “The Sinking of Rubin James,” and “Miner’s Life.” Seeger sang the miner’s song throughout his long career, and it became an important part of his repertoire.


Remember the song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight?” It was made famous in 1962 by a group named The Tokens. The song was actually a Weavers tune called “Wimoweh.” The original had no English words, and the AFT group did a fine job in recreating its familiar melodies.


I loved the comical song “You Old Fool.” It tells the story of a hapless, drunken husband whose wife is trying to make him believe she is not cheating on him, even though there is evidence to the contrary. The problem is that the husband is too drunk and clueless to figure things out. The song is a riot.


Ms. Russell rendered a beautiful version of “I Know Where I Am Going.” The group also sang a folk classic, “The Rock Island Line.”


“Wasn’t That a Time” is an ever popular message song, and the melodious quartet was impressive. They also sang the perennial, “When The Saints Go Marching In.”


“The Hammer Song” was made famous by Peter, Paul, and Mary (remember them?). It was actually first conceived by the Weavers but was relatively obscure until the trio sang and recorded it. The AFT group gave the song a strong interpretation.


The last announced song was, “Goodnight Irene.” It’s a wonderful classic, and the quartet asked the audience to join in on the singing.


A humorous encore, “My Getup and Go,” brought the show to a conclusion.


The show is great, nostalgic, fun, and worth seeing. The group harmonizes together with great ease, and they obviously put a lot of work and thought into its preparation. My only regret is that it is a little short. The program runs for about an hour.


As I sat in the Ephraim Public Hall, enjoying the comforts of Door County, I could not help but think of the events occurring in the south. Many arts and nonprofit organizations are providing financial relief to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The New York Broadway community has gathered together and collected $100,000 for relief efforts.


AFT managing director Kaye Christman told me that part of the proceeds from the Sept. 17 performance of “Goodnight Irene” will be donated to this cause. Wouldn’t it be great and appropriate for other Door County arts organizations to pool their resources. Door County’s voice should be experienced by the victims of Hurricane Katrina.