BWW Reviews: WOODY SEZ Is Back, And As Foot-Tapping As Ever
Stop for a moment and think how many times we have sung these lyrics:
This land is your land,
This land is my land
To the New York island ...
It's always great fun to sing it, written as it is to that bright, sunny melody; and yet how much do we really know about the man who wrote them, or the hard times that inspired him to write?
And-here's the kicker-do we have any idea what the song is really about?
The folks at Theater J have done us a huge favor by bringing back Helen Hayes Award Winner David Lutken and his band, so that we can have another visit with the great American songwriter and activist Woody Guthrie. Staged as an evening of down-home music, complete with opportunities for audience participation and sing-alongs, we can sit in on Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie and see America through the eyes of one of its most accomplished artists.
Not that it's an easy ride; Woody Sez is also a look back at an America that was far more desperate and cruel, with the horrors of the Great Depression, hired corporate thugs beating and shooting factory workers-and we haven't even gotten to Woody's childhood home, which was as dark a place as any on earth. Trials like this made it all the more important at the end of the day to find a cozy room where you could kick back, pick out a tune or two, dance a little, laugh a lot, forget the past like so much water under the bridge and hope for better days ahead.
It is a huge credit to Lutken, the show's creator, that the hard truths of Woody's life and of America's 1930's are delivered so gracefully and laconically. The Woody Guthrie we see on the Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater stage doesn't want to scare you, bore you, or nail you to the wall with his agenda; he really wants you to stick around, be entertained, sing a little maybe, and learn a thing or two along the way. Learning is seldom as easy as this, and seldom as rich. And old standards like "This Land is Your Land" ring anew as a stubborn demand for respect, equality, and social justice.
Those of you familiar with the original "Dust Bowl" recordings, the old 78's, may note that Lutken's guitar work owes more to the 60's revival than Woody's original picking style. But it makes the music that much more familiar, and he is accompanied by two accomplished fiddlers, Leenya Rideout and David Finch (also a mean banjo-player), and upright bass player Helen Jean Russell. When not swapping hot licks on their instruments the ensemble moves easily through a series of characters in Guthrie's life; Russell is especially affecting as Guthrie's troubled mother, who died in an institution, while Finch provides welcome comic relief as a series of cranky radio producers and sidekicks. Leenya Rideout, meanwhile, takes all-too-brief turns as a beloved sister and, later, the loves of Woody's life.
Luke Hegel-Cantarella's scenic backdrop is haunting, with its evocation of a hard-scrabble Oklahoma farm at sunset, with images of the Dust Bowl disaster, a sketch by Woody Guthrie, and the singer himself floating above the stage. Garth Dolan's lighting design skillfully manages the many transitions from studio to home to music hall, showing off Jeffrey Meek's evocative costumes to good effect.
The show, being honest, also gives you a none-too-subtle glimpse of Guthrie's work for the American Communist Party. Given what we now know about the Soviet Union and the cynical ways in which they manipulated artists like Guthrie, seeing his enthusiasm for the cause once again can be disturbing. But it would be a lot more disturbing if Lutken had left out Guthrie's vivid, harrowing descriptions of the nation's poor, and how they were exploited across the country with malice aforethought, precisely because they were poor. Racism, greed, and brutality were the rule in those days, and conservatives have only themselves to blame if stale ideologues like Karl Marx and dictators like Josef Stalin appealed to anybody, then as now. So listen to what Woody describes, and ask yourself whether history hasn't continued to repeat itself decade after decade since his time.
In what will be a first for many, audiences will also learn-although all too briefly-about Guthrie's special connection to the Jewish community; after years on the road and a broken relationship or three, Guthrie eventually married into a prominent American Yiddish family and settled in New York City. Recent recordings have shown how Woody embraced his bride's heritage, and it is one of the tragedies of his life-one among many-that he was struck down by illness before he could take this new music on the road.
As the show pointedly reminds us, Woody often had to labor in the shadow of Irving Berlin, fending off numerous requests for "God Bless America," which had become a patriotic standard at the height of the Depression. What Lutken subtly points out, however, is that if there were any justice, Guthrie's songs would give Berlin's a run for their money, whatever we do with those 7th inning stretches.
Running Time: 1 hour & 45 minutes (plus Hootenanny!)
Woody Sez runs November 29-December 14 at Theater J in the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center's Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater, 1529 Sixteenth Street NW, Washington, DC (at the corner of 16th and Q Streets). Tickets are available by calling 800-494-8497 or by logging into http://washingtondcjcc.org/center-for-arts/theater-j/box-office/.