Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie
Devised by David M. Lutkin, Nick Corley, Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell and Andy Teirstein
Irish Repertory Theatre at 132 West 22nd Street
BS rating: A
Show Score rating: 95
If folk music is your passion, then “Woody Sez,” at the Irish Repertory Theatre, is a “must-see.” The Woody, of course, is Woody Guthrie, the seminal influence on popular American folk music in the second half of the 20th century. His music and his politics inspired the likes of Joan Baez, Paul Simon, and the equally influential Bob Dylan. A cast of four thoroughly authentic folk performers combine the major events in Guthrie’s life with the music he created at each stage of his career in a wonderfully entertaining and frequently moving tribute to the “hobo poet.”
Guthrie’s life was full of challenges. His mother suffered from hereditary Huntington’s disease that went undiagnosed as the family suffered from a set of house fires, the death of one of his sisters, and the serious injury from fire to his father – all possibly related to the mother’s uncontrollable dementia. Even though his father had been a successful business man, the series of fires and the father’s debts from bad real estate deals left the family living in poverty throughout Guthrie’s teenage years. At 19, the self-trained troubadour set off to California where he mingled with farm workers and mid-westerners displaced by the great depression and the destructive dust storms. Guthrie’s music became the voice of the oppressed and an advocate for social justice.
Throughout his life, Woody Guthrie’s music was directly connected to social and political events of his time and he developed his understanding of these issues by interacting directly with the people. This musical tribute carefully illustrates the context for many of Guthrie’s famous, and not-so-famous, songs with brief narratives that meld into the music and lyrics that Guthrie created to define American workers in the 1930s and 40s. For anyone who knows Guthrie from the songs that were made famous by his disciples in the 1960s and 70s, this tribute includes many familiar songs – This Land Is Your Land, Union Maid, Deportees. But there are also many lesser known but equally insightful pieces – Pastures of Plenty, Vigilante Man, sand Talking Merchant Marine.
“Woody Sez” was originally produced at the 2007 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and, since that time, it has been performed all over the United States and Europe but not in New York. The four performers, who also developed the piece, have diverse backgrounds in theatre and music, but they communicate a truly authentic feeling for Guthrie’s style and perspective. Each play multiple stringed instruments in the tradition of classic folk performers. Also in that tradition, their singing is less about beautiful sounds than it is about communicating ideas.
The cast is led by David Lutken as the voice of Woody. Mr. Lutken does not try to imitate the sound of Guthrie’s voice but instead focuses very successfully on his style and his attitude. He creates a Woody who can move seamlessly from the outrage of “Dust Bowl Disaster” to the whimsy of “Riding in My Car” to the spirit of “This Land is Your Land.” He is supported by Megan Loomis, Helen Jean Russel, and Andy Tierstein – each of whom have effective solos and combine “pitch-perfectly” in ensemble numbers. Together, these four performers create the sense of a get-together remembering our old friend, Woody Guthrie.
And it is the genius of that old friend that makes this get-together so entertaining and enlightening. In addition to producing this tribute, the Irish Reparatory has also developed a fascinating display of Guthrie memorabilia and historical documents in its newly remodeled gallery. In a section on Guthrie’s impact on contemporary music, a quote from Billy Bragg, the British folk/punk artist, defines Woody’s place in folk music evolution: “He’s not a link in the chain. He’s the stake that’s grounded in the earth that the chain is linked to.” In “Woody Sez,” we experience the outrage, the insight, and the joy of that stake in the ground.