Thursday, June 8, 2017

22 (2017-2018): Review: WOODY SEZ: THE LIFE & MUSIC OF WOODY GUTHRIE (seen June 7, 2017)

“His Land Is Our Land”

Some years back I was driving through my neighborhood of Howard Beach, Queens, when I passed a marker in front of a small, nondescript, suburban-style ranch house, noting that the great American folk song writer and performer, Woody Guthrie (1912-1967), had once lived there. The sign has long been removed, perhaps because the people living there didn’t want the undue attention it might have been drawing. I’ve never forgotten the feeling of noting the ironic juxtaposition of this leftwing protest singer’s presence in one of New York’s most bourgeois enclaves. 
David M. Lutken, Megan Loomis. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
If you’re not sure who Woody Guthrie was and what he accomplished and stood for, I suggest you hop an MTA boxcar over to the Irish Rep on W. 22nd St. where Woody Sez, an excellent jukebox bio-musical about his life, is being enacted by a delightful quartet of multitalented singer-musicians. I have no idea of what the Irish connection is, if indeed there is one, but it will take only a few minutes before you stop wondering about it and give yourself over to the joys of topnotch musicianship and homespun biographical storytelling.
David M. Lutken, Helen Jean Russell, Megan Loomis. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The show, for which New York is one stop on its decade-long journey since premiering at the 2007 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, was devised by David M. Lutken, Nick Corley (who directed), Helen Jean Russell, and Andy Teirstein. The tall, lanky, Ray Bolger-like Lutken channels the wool-cap-wearing Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, while Russell, Teirstein (from 23rd St. and Madison Avenue, we’re told), and Megan Loomis cover over three dozen songs in a bit more than two hours, with a single intermission; only a small number, including the left-wing anthem, “The Internationale,” aren’t by Guthrie himself.
Megan Loomis, Helen Jean Russell, David M. Lutken, Andy Teirstein. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The music rarely stops, even as the charmingly humorous Woody recounts his biographical odyssey, including its hardship and tragedy, beginning with his childhood in Okemah, OK, and ending with his too-early death from the hereditary Huntington’s disease, which also killed his mother. With Guthrie playing a beat-up old guitar later labeled, as was Guthrie’s, “This Machine Kills Fascists,” we’re treated to some of the most famous roots-type songs of the mid-20th century.
Megan Loomis, Helen Jean Russell, Andy Teirstein, David M. Lutkin. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The songs, some of which ran into radio censorship, help to illustrate Woody’s path toward left-wing, pro-union (“Union Maid”), anti-banking (“Jolly Banker”), and (until he enlisted in World War II) antiwar (“Sinking of the Reuben James”) activism. Best known, of course, are “This Train Is Bound for Glory,” “The Ballad of Tom Joad,” which keeps weaving its many-versed way through the show, “So Long It’s Been Good to Know You,” which gets a burst of happy New York applause when Woody aims it the Republicans, and, of course, “This Land Is Your Land.” Some songs are gentle and sweet, others make you want to clap your hands and tap your toes, but they all have a point to make.
David M. Lutken, Megan Loomis, Andy Teirstein, Helen Jean Russell. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Lutken, a strong singer whose edgy voice resembles Willie Nelson’s, plays the harmonica and guitar, but his costars play a wide variety of stringed instruments, some of which I couldn’t name, and Teirstein adds what I think is a recorder as well as a brief passage on the spoons. As dressed by costumer Jeffrey Meeks in Grapes of Wrath-style garb, the company looks like friendly Okies who might have been traveling to California following what one song remembers as the “Dust Storm Disaster” of 1935. 

Working on Luke Hegel-Cantarella’s simple platform stage backed by period images, including a photo of Woody himself, with expert lighting by Michael Gottlieb, director Corley moves his cast around in continuously interesting patterns. Lutken’s solos dominate, but everyone else gets to shine as well, both in solos and brief acted segments.

Woody Sez begins with a bit of a preshow “warm-up” concert and ends with a too-brief post-curtain call hootenanny. Much of this music is as pertinent today as it was from the thirties through the sixties. For example, just listen, all you theatergoing hoboes, migrants, and boxcar hoppers, as Woody sings in “Why Do You Stand There in the Rain”:

If everybody owned everything
Then us poor folks all would sing
And the world’d finally come out fair and square.
The only time you’d have a brawl’d be
If someone built a wall around a County and then tried to call it theirs.


Irish Repertory Theatre
132 W. 22nd St., NYC
Through July 23