Still Radical After All These Years
The Rep’s “Woody Sez” mixes Guthrie’s great music and still provocative politics.
No one can leave “Woody Sez – The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie” without succumbing to its toe-tapping pleasures and artistic cleverness. But if they settle for that with this Milwaukee Repertory Theater import through March 9 at the Stackner Cabaret, they will miss the pointed history and revelatory depth of a rounded dramatic experience.
While blessed with infectious melodies and pointed social lyrics that have influenced generations of popular music, “Woody Sez” proves far more than a musical concert. You don’t have to know Guthrie’s deep influence on Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and others to appreciate the thrust and craft of a show that moved audiences at the Edinburgh Festival in 2007 and later, in London, Chicago and even Oklahoma City — not far from where Woody was born and grew up to perform with contemporaries like Pete Seeger and raise my teenage spirits and social conscience, as well as those of many other Americans.
“Woody Sez” is a well researched somewhat free-form exploration of the inner Woody and his central Great Depression era (though touching on childhood and final illness, 1912-1967). It is a psychological portrait of the man, while also portraying the road that drew him, the songs of the common folks, the country and city girls that fell his way, the musical cohorts West and East, his notebooks of insightful reaction to social injustice and the family mental illness that shadowed Guthrie’s life.
This kind of show, actually hard to maneuver in the Stackner space, has been handled expertly by one of its co-creators, director Nick Corley, even down to comedic crowd interplay. But the show’s chief deviser and clear star embodying Woody in both first and third person voice is the engaging David M. Lutken, also music director.
The inseparable ensemble of four also includes Helen Jean Russell, also an onstage deviser, and two other actors who trade roles of various characters around Woody and perform on violin, banjo, mandolin, bass, guitars and even spoons. Russell is the anchor singer and handles the most disturbing characters. Leenya Rideout flourishes a strong soprano and stringed instruments with a deliberate “look ma, it’s easy” manner that disguises a quite sophisticated acting skill. David Finch charms as he sketches or embodies diverse characters and cuts loose on some winning solos.
The costumes are homey re-creations of the era and Woodyish photos and sayings are stuck to the walls as the cabaret audience sips imported wine and liquor.
The ensemble integration and professionalism are doubly impressive. They juggle multiple instruments with enthusiasm and accomplishment – but not as musical virtuosos, though they play and sing quite well, but as performance virtuosos, which draws the audience in on all fronts, frozen in attention despite the available refreshments.
Lutken need not work so hard to capture the Woody twang to endear himself to us. His research and affinity with Woody’s writings and personality, plus his versatile guitar and harmonica work, allow him a wonderful double edge. He can be mischievous Woody performer and commentator one minute and then sink progressively deeper into the tragedies of Guthrie’s life and most heartfelt songs.
The seniors that packed the Stackner Cabaret at the January 7 opening are likely to know the melodies best, but the issues the play deals with are hardly out of date. Some audience members still seemed uncomfortable that the original “Woody Sez” columns were penned for the People’s World. You could sense the admiration for Woody’s service in the war and satire of Hitler, yet you could feel a few cringe at his enthusiasm for unions and scorn for the Commie fear-mongers, ruthless bankers and the blacklist.
A younger crowd might respond with enthusiasm not just to the timeless music but with less ideological blinders to the show’s story. Guthrie traveled through those times responding to police lines, hired thugs, displaced farmers, the Dust Bowl panic and the establishment fear of his homespun opinions, and you see how this talented, empathetic, naturally outspoken young man was inevitably drawn to portray the sufferings of his class and neighbors. Many of Guthrie’s “radical” beliefs today have become the tamest of mainstream views.
Lutken and company make sure there are plenty of musical highlights to hum, but they never abandon this larger optimistic message of Guthrie’s life.
(The Rep is encouraging free humming every Thursday about 9:30 p.m. in the outer bar area of the Stackner – a free and free-flowing jam session of folk music with the cast, and an invitation, as Lutken says, “to bring the instruments they won’t let you play at home.”)
The show runs Tuesdays through Sundays. Check the Rep website for schedules and dinner before the show.