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Theatre in Review: Woody Sez (Irish Repertory Theatre)

Megan Loomis, Helen Jean Russell, Andy Teirstein, David M. Lutken. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Environmental disaster, the demonization of immigrants, authoritarian political figures, the yawning gulf between rich and poor: I am, of course, talking about America in the 1930s, not 2017, although you weren't sure about that, were you? The details may be specific to each era, but the battles remain the same. This is why Woody Sez, a revue of songs made famous by Woody Guthrie, was an inspired choice for this fraught political moment. The Oklahoma-born troubadour spent his short life roaming the country, taking up the causes of the downtrodden and singing about inequality, unions, fascism, warmongering, and the power of the people -- and what a collection of toe-tappers they are! "That hobo poet of the Western plains, the 'Vox Populi' in person," says a radio announcer, and those words will do very nicely, thank you. Welding pointed words to catchy tunes, Guthrie became a prophet of populism, providing hope, perspective, and healing to the millions of Americans who were run over by the rusty Model T of American capitalism -- at least as practiced in the years leading up to Black Thursday.

Woody Sez combines a generous sampling of Guthrie's songs with an outline of the singer's life, a story dogged by tragedy at nearly every step. He was born into a solidly middle-class family whose fortunes sagged as his father's real estate deals soured; they were also burned out of their homes at least twice -- in one instance killing Guthrie's sister -- incidents that, the script strongly implies, were instigated by Guthrie's mother, who, at an early age, slipped into dementia caused by Huntington's chorea. The diagnosis -- the disease is hereditary -- cast a dark shadow across Guthrie's adult life; the specter of injury and death by fire would recur, time and again.

Hitting the road in the 1930s, Guthrie traversed the Dust Bowl, staying in Hoovervilles and experiencing firsthand the ruined landscape of Depression-era America. He saw with his own eyes the blockade of state police massed at the border to prevent starving Okies from reaching the promised land of California's Inland Empire. He understood how migrant workers, waiting to be hired, could run up debts at a company store, leaving them in economic slavery forever. And, as the union movement gained strength, he knew all too well that there were "guns and tear gas bombs and hired thugs and vigilantes" on the other side. Everywhere he went, the same truth prevailed: Money talks. Or, as he put it, "California is a Garden of Eden/It's a paradise to live in or see/But believe it or not, you won't find it so hot/If you ain't got the do re mi."

Woody Sez is a poignant, frequently stirring account of a life spent fighting the good fight by an artist who held on to hope and good humor in the face of fierce political struggle and devastating personal tragedy. With the lanky, laconic, utterly magnetic David M. Lutken standing in for Guthrie, the musical bill of fare ranges from such well-known crowd-pleasers as "This Train is Bound for Glory" and "This Land is Your Land" to other, more politically pungent, works, such as "Talkin' New York City, 1940" ("If everybody owned everything/Then us poor folks all would sing/And the world'd finally come out fair and square"), "So Long It's Been Good to Know Yuh" ("This dusty old dust is a-gettin' my home/And I got to be driftin' along"), and "Pastures of Plenty" ("Yes, I've worked in your orchards of peaches and prunes/I've slept on the ground in the light of your moon/On the edge of your cities you'll see us and then/We come with the dust and we go with the wind.") The show doesn't say so, but it might amuse you to know that Guthrie wrote a song denouncing the racist renting practices of Fred Trump, the president's father, more than twenty years before the Justice Department accused the real estate titan of discriminating against blacks.

Lutken, a first-rate musician and singer, puts over the numbers with brio, and he is aided by an equally gifted company that includes Megan Loomis, Helen Jean Russell, and Andy Teirstein. (The credit for devising the production goes to Lutken and Nick Corley, the director, with additional contributions by Darcie Deaville, Russell, and Teirstein; the latter three collaborated with Lutken on the orchestrations and vocal arrangements.) Corley's direction ensures that the songs and narrative are woven together with the seamlessness and homespun purity of an authentic country quilt.

Corley has also obtained fine contributions from his design team. The set designer, Luke Hegel-Cantarella, places the action on a weathered wood platform backed by panels depicting a crepuscular sky, with smaller panels depicting the young Guthrie, an Okie family, and some of the pen-and-ink sketches he did for his column in the People's Daily World during his fellow traveler days. (The singer was, apparently, too iconoclastic to belong to any political party, though he eventually became a committed anti-Fascist, joining the Merchant Marine in World War II.) Michael Gottlieb's lighting provides plenty of moonlight washes and glorious sunrises. Jeffrey Meek's costumes run, appropriately, to gingham gowns for the ladies and work clothes for the men. At a time when amplification is making its way into even intimate theatre productions, Woody Sez remains blessedly free of electronic sweetening.

More an evocation of the artist's sensibility than a straight-up biography, Woody Sez captures Guthrie's folksy, friendly manner and the fierce beliefs that raged underneath. I would add that the production offers audiences a valuable history lesson: The issues that animated Guthrie remain urgent today. -- David Barbour

(9 June 2017)

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