Woody Guthrie wrote hard-hitting songs for hard-hit people, as the title of a tome he co-authored with Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger — an extensive songbook of American folk — neatly puts it. More often than not, it’s the radical message in his music that hits you hard; the tunes, by contrast, are easygoing, the tone colloquial. Tracks like “Union Maid,” “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh,” and “This Land Is Your Land” (the final, rarely sung verses in particular) always sound friendly, even when they’re sorrowful or irate.
Woody Sez, an exuberant biographical revue onstage at the Irish Repertory Theatre, strikes a similar balance. Featuring forty-plus songs stuffed into two hours, the show is as genial as a hootenanny, yet creator David M. Lutken and his three performer-collaborators never water down Guthrie’s politics (pro-labor, pro-equality, anti-capitalism, anti-hoity-toityism) or get sentimental about the Dust Bowl migrants, farm workers, union agitators, and other downtrodden folks Guthrie gave voice to in the Thirties and Forties.
Nor do Lutken and company strain to emphasize contemporary resonances, trusting audience members to make those connections themselves. On one hand, it’s worth noting how little has changed in the fortunes of the rapacious finance types of Guthrie’s “Jolly Banker” or the undocumented Mexican immigrants of “Deportee.” On the other, you might marvel at (and pine for) a time when left-wing ideas gained some purchase in the country’s rural communities. That complex relation to the present is what keeps the production, which has been seen in various cities since 2007, from becoming purely an exercise in nostalgia. Without explicitly saying so, the show feels like an affable riposte to the prevailing mood in red states today.
Director Nick Corley and the cast certainly make Guthrie’s standpoint look and sound appealing. Lutken usually plays the balladeer, though on the July night I saw the show, Sam Sherwood filled in with boyish enthusiasm and a good approximation of the singer’s nasal Oklahoma twang. He’s joined by the personable and musically versatile Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell, and David Finch, each of whom plays a slew of roles and about as many stringed instruments — fiddle, guitar, banjo, autoharp, and more. (Deaville and Finch have replaced Megan Loomis and Andy Teirstein, who were in the cast when the show opened here, in June.) Their boisterous interpretations of Guthrie’s oeuvre are performed in front of blown-up photographs of the folk singer and dusty farmscapes (the set design is by Luke Hegel-Cantarella). It’s all gorgeously lit by Michael Gottlieb to evoke baking summer days on the plains and nights on the road under the moon.
In between songs, Lutken sketches in the chapters of Guthrie’s life story, often via first-person narration. There are the makings of a fascinating narrative here — from the young musician’s Grapes of Wrath-like tour of migratory camps during the Great Depression to his death (in 1967, at age fifty-five) from a rare neurological disease (Huntington’s) inherited from his mother. But the script remains too cursory to convey much of the man’s psychological landscape. We zoom past troubles and triumphs as if on one of the freight trains Guthrie rode in his youth. Thanks to the music, however, the social fabric comes across in all its exhilarating, exasperating fullness. That’s a testament to Guthrie’s still-relevant mission, summed up in his own definition of his chosen genre: “A folk song is what’s wrong and how to fix it.”
Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
Through September 10