By Elizabeth Marie Himchak
San Diego REPertory Theatre’s “A Hammer, A Bell and A Song to Sing” is an enjoyable way to learn how music has shaped history, particularly when attempting to overcome adversity.
The one-and-a-half hour show playing at the Lyceum Stage through Dec. 2 jumps from one historical movement to the next over several centuries as the four-member cast shares the impact of music on each generation, from the American Revolution to present, through music, quotes and photographs.
Rather than going in chronological order, the show skips back and forth, touching upon moments such as the Occupy movement of recent months to the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam protests of the ‘60s, and rallying cries during the United States’ formation centuries ago.
The production — an expanded version of the workshop by the same name that the REP staged in January — is deeply personal for the four-member cast of Vaughn Armstrong, David Crossland, Jim Mooney and Lisa Payton. Not only did Armstrong, Crossland and Mooney — the original cast members — help Todd Salovey write the show, but all four cast members share their personal experiences and insights with the audience through dialogue and music.
For example, it is hard not to feel for Armstrong when his heartfelt emotions rise to the surface while describing his personal experiences of serving in Vietnam.
The addition of Payton is a wise choice since she adds not only a female element, but that of an African-American to the show that would otherwise only be told from the white male perspective; one that is too often the only perspective focused on in history.
According to the show’s program, the production’s initial inspiration was the music of folk singer Pete Seeger. But when he chose to not have his life and impact on society presented in stage form, the REP decided to rewrite the show so it could explain how music and social movement leaders have changed society, both here in the United States and abroad.
Much of the music should be familiar to the audience, at least those ages 40-plus. But that does not mean younger audience members cannot appreciate the show. In fact, their presence would be wise since “A Hammer, A Bell and A Song to Sing” would be a good introduction to historical events and movements, especially those not covered in-depth in their textbooks.
All who see it are likely to walk away having learned something new and perhaps surprising, like the historical meanings of the nursery tune “Baa, Baa Black Sheep.”
By inviting the audience to join the musically talented cast with a sing-along during some of the 25-plus songs, and adding an occasional comedic twist to what could otherwise be only solemn topics, the production is enjoyable and well-worth seeing.
“A Hammer, A Bell and A Song to Sing” can be seen in matinee and evening performances through Dec. 2 at the Lyceum Stage, 79 Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego.
Tickets are $38 to $58, with student, senior, military and group discounts available. Purchase at 619-544-1000 or www.sdrep.org. Four hours of validated parking are offered to those who use the Horton Plaza garage.