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Review: ‘Woody Sez’ Sings of a Land Not Always Made for You and Me


From left, Megan Loomis, Helen Jean Russell, David M. Lutken and Andy Teirstein in “Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie.”

Carol Rosegg

The songs and high spirits come in a bracing torrent in “Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie,” at the Irish Repertory Theater. This show, more revue than musical, features four skilled performers — David M. Lutken, Helen Jean Russell, Andy Teirstein and Megan Loomis — in multiple roles (and on multiple instruments) as they recreate the journey of Guthrie (1912-1967), the essential voice of American folk and protest music in the 1930s and ’40s.

“Woody Sez” comprises quick glimpses at moments in Guthrie’s trajectory, initially jumping among time frames. After a brief introduction, Mr. Lutken, as Guthrie, leads a rousing version of the gospel classic “This Train Is Bound for Glory” before the setting shifts to a New York radio station. Amid sprightly ad jingles, a program director wants to hear Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” which Guthrie detested. So Guthrie sings his riposte, “This Land Is Your Land,” with its lesser-known verses about social inequality:

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people —
As they stood hungry, I stood there wonderin’
Is this land made for you and me?

Then the show flashes back to Guthrie’s early years in Oklahoma and Texas under his mother’s musical influence. (With a warm alto, Ms. Russell serenades Guthrie with a lovely “Gypsy Davy.”) Huntington’s disease, which caused his mother’s eventual mental illness, would later plague Guthrie as well. We see the dawn of Guthrie’s itinerant existence during the Dust Bowl and the Depression, when he left his first wife and two children to join the countless destitute Midwesterners who migrated to California seeking work.

Directed by Nick Corley, “Woody Sez” vividly evokes the hobo camps and Hoovervilles of Guthrie’s California period, in which he makes radio appearances, writes pieces for The People’s Daily World newspaper and sings for field workers and union members. “California is as beautiful a place as you can find,” Guthrie says, “to starve to death in.” (Michael Gottlieb’s subtle lighting, whether suggesting a sunset’s long shadows or a campfire’s illumination, is a marvel.) Guthrie’s World War II experience — surviving two torpedo attacks — is addressed, as is the death of a beloved daughter in a fire. His alcoholism and marital infidelities receive scant attention.

This is a show that favors breadth over biographical detail, and there’s a lot to cover, especially when you consider the snippets of more than 40 songs in about two hours. But the exhilarating “Woody Sez,” a fine balm for a summer’s night, moves at a brisk and polished pace, having toured widely since 2007. Mr. Lutken’s Guthrie avoids aw-shucks sentimentality; Mr. Teirstein demonstrates remarkable instrumental versatility; and the sparkling Ms. Loomis mugs winningly as she takes a fiddle solo.

As for Guthrie — with his uncondescending articulation of working-class woes and accessible, common-sense critiques of the privileged class — we sure could use a man like him right now.

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