The singing coming from the general direction of Horton Plaza isn't that of some leftover holiday carolers. It's a theater audience, below the mall, at the Lyceum Stage, communally crooning the likes of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” “Down by the Riverside” and “We Shall Overcome.”
They're each songs of societal and political change included in the San Diego Repertory Theatre's world-premiere workshop production of A Hammer, a Bell, and a Song. The show, written by director Todd Salovey with musicians Jim Mooney, Vaughn Armstrong and Dave Crossland, combines spoken word, visuals and music to tell the story of America's ongoing activism, from the era of the Revolutionary War through the turmoil of the '60s and '70s to the present day. This is an audience-participation piece: No one is hauled up on stage unwillingly, but everyone is encouraged (by Mooney, Armstrong and Crossland, who are performing) to sing out and sing along.
“One of the effects of singing together is that it engenders a feeling of trust in people, and that trust puts the individual into a group, and they feel empowered to accomplish whatever it is they want to accomplish,” said Mooney, seen recently in the Rep's The Great American Trailer Park Musical. “That experience, of joining together in a large group and singing, should make people feel good on a very basic level.”
This production originally had been intended as a play featuring the music of activist-musician Pete Seeger, but plans changed when Seeger (at age 92) read the final rehearsal draft and balked. “On short notice, we had to come up with something that carried on with the spirit of what Pete Seeger has done without specifically having it be about him,” Mooney explained.
Salovey is pleased with the results so far. "I have this belief that people will greatly enjoy that they're being asked to sing," he said. "It's the secret aspiration of the show to get people to remember that they used to like doing this.
"When it comes from the heart and the soul, it doesn't matter at all whether it's good or bad singing. I think it touches us and creates a sense of connection to ourselves, to the people around us and to the song itself."
A Hammer, a Bell, and a Song runs through Jan. 29 at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, Downtown. $32-$51.
A Behanding in Spokane: Cygnet Theatre presents Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's offbeat comedy about a man searching for his missing hand. Previews begin Jan. 19; opens Jan. 28 at the Old Town Stage. $29-$54. cygnettheatre.com
Body Awareness: Annie Baker's dramatic comedy set in the New England college town of Shirley, Vt. Jan. 22 at PowPac in Poway. $10. powpac.org
Brooklyn Boy: Scripps Ranch Theatre stages Donald Margulies' comedy about searching for one's roots and one's self. Preview Jan. 20; opens Jan. 21 at Legler Benbough Theatre at Alliant international University in Scripps Ranch. $22-$25. scrippsranchtheatre.org
How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying: A rousing score by Frank Loesser highlights this musical satire of corporate America. Opens Jan. 19 at Welk Resorts Theatre in Escondido. $36-$63. welktheatresandiego.com
M: The New Play Festival 2012 continues with this work by playwright Karen Li. Opens Jan. 20 at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad. $15. newvillagearts.org
The Mousetrap: Agatha Christie's venerable murder play, the longest-running production in the world, is presented by Moonlight Stage Productions. Opens Jan. 19 at AVO Playhouse in Vista. $22-$30. moonlightstage.com
The Recommendation: The lives of two college roommates change drastically once they enter the real world in this world-premiere play by Jonathan Caren. Previews begin Jan. 21; opens Jan. 26 at Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. $29 and up. oldglobe.org
Renegade Princess: Comic-author Ann Marie Houghtailing's one-woman play about self-determination and survival. Opens Jan. 20 at 10th Avenue Theatre, Downtown. $20. 10thavenuetheatre.com
Request Programme: Ion Theatre presents Linda Libby as a woman passing an evening at home in this wordless play by Franz Xaver Kroetz. Preview Jan. 18; opens Jan. 19 at BLKBOX @ 6th & Penn in Hillcrest. $20-$24. iontheatre.com
Shakespeare Unscripted: Impro Theatre creates a play inspired by Shakespeare and does so spontaneously. Jan. 23 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach. $15-$20. northcoastrep.org
The Facts of Life: The Lost Episode: The ‘80s sitcom gets a twisted take via the mind of Jamie Morris. Through Jan. 22 at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights. $20-$29. diversionary.org
A Hammer, a Bell and a Song to Sing: The Music of Pete Seeger: This workshop musical is composed of spoken-word pieces and songs of activism down through the decades in America. Audiences are invited to sing along. Through Jan. 29 at San Diego Repertory Theatre, Downtown. $32-$51. sdrep.org
The Elephant Man: The life of John Merrick is retold in the venerable play by Bernard Pomerance. Through Feb. 4 at OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista. $14-$16. onstageplayhouse.org
The Lion in Winter: James Goldman's story of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, set in 12th-century England, is tangled with familial machinations but benefits from a stentorian-voiced Mark Pinter as Henry and an insider sensibility among the cast that the story's lessons still apply today. Through Feb. 5 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach. $32-$49. northcoastrep.org
Panache: Don Gordon's screwball comedy in which an unlikely couple meet under unusual circumstances. Through Feb. 5 at PowPAC, Poway's Community Theatre. $18. powpac.org
Pinkalicious The Musical: A fanciful work produced by North Coast Rep's Professional Theatre for Young Audiences. Through Feb. 5 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach. $12-$16. northcoastrep.org
Dividing the Estate: Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Horton Foote's family comedy set in a fictitious Texas town. Through Feb. 12 at Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. $29 and up. oldglobe.org
miXtape: Generation X was torn between disillusionment and hope in this cavalcade of music from the 1980s. Produced by Lamb's Players Theatre, it runs through Feb. 26 at the Horton Grand Theatre, Downtown. $28-$58. lambsplayers.org
Shotgun Wedding Anniversary: How else can a miserable 25-year marriage end but in murder? Presented by Mystery Cafe, it's ongoing at Imperial House restaurant in Bankers Hill. $59.50, including dinner. mysterycafe.net