As a good union member in my youth I would join colleagues in sitting around and be energized singing such Woody Guthrie songs as “Union Maid,” “This Train is Bound for Glory” and “This Land is Your Land.” Seeing the wonderful musical tribute to Guthrie at the Irish Repertory Theatre, including those favorite songs, is not only an entertaining and emotional trip down memory lane but a reminder of what Americans must currently fight for in a time when workers and liberal principles are under assault.
“Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie” has been cleverly devised by David M. Lutken with Nick Corley and Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell and Andy Teirstein, with Corley directing and musical direction by Lutken. It is Lutken who charms on stage by leading us through Guthrie’s life and comments, as well as playing guitar as he takes us on the musical journey. Lutken has a lanky build, an easygoing style and is the perfect stand-in for Guthrie in speech and song.
Before this very special show begins we see a variety of instruments, different types of guitars, violins and a bass on stage, and gradually the cast, picks up the instruments and shows collective and individual talent in giving us samples of Guthrie’s prolific output as a working class troubadour who inspired a generation of folk music by others who picked up on his musical battle for causes in which he believed. He became very close, for example, to the iconic Pete Seeger.
The song list performed in two acts is staggering. Megan Loomis and Helen Jean Russell not only are excellent musicians, but they sing impressively with their folksy interpretations of Guthrie’s music and lyrics, and their effective acting contributes warmly to the Guthrie portrait to which the show is geared. Andy Teirstein also adds to the Guthrie spirit with his musicianship that even includes amusingly making music with spoons.
But it is Lutken who leads the way throughout, as he takes Guthrie, born in Oklahoma of parents of Scots-Irish descent, through his life and relationships that chronicle his restlessness and acquired sympathy for the underdog. One of the poignant segments involves Guthrie’s stop at a fruit picker location in California, where in the midst of the Great Depression poverty, workers struggle for existence along the lines of what John Steinbeck dramatized in “The Grapes of Wrath.”
The show also alludes to Guthrie’s battles with censorship for his leftist and pro-Communist views and associations, his working class-inspired songs and his determination to be heard. Also covered is his stint in the Merchant Marines during World War II. There is the ultimate sadness of his inherited Huntington disease, of which his mother died, and which cut his life short at the age of 55.
The songs to which we are treated along the way also include “The Ballad of Tom Joad,” “I Ride an Ol’ Paint,” “Jolly Banker,” “Vigilante Man,” “Sinking of the Reuben James” and a host of others, all winningly performed in an intimate manner that connects with the audience. Although the songs are delivered with the height of professionalism after the show having being performed in various venues before this Irish Repertory Theatre outing, there is the feeling that it is just being done for those watching at the moment.
This is a production not to be missed for those who enjoy or especially treasure folk music. Audience members are invited to a second floor Guthrie exhibition, which is rich in his history via original documents, newspaper clippings, photos and examples of his writings. It is well worth planning to take the time to see it, during intermission or, preferably, after the show when you can take more time. At the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street. Phone 212-255-0270. Reviewed June 15, 2017.