Finding Songs in Sorrow: “Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie”

Presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre
Devised by David M. Lutken with Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell, and Andy Teirstein
Directed by Nick Corley and Sherry Lutken
Music direction by David M. Lutken
Featuring Darcie Deaville, Maggie Hollinbeck, David M. Lutken, Andy Tierstein

June 8 – 22, 2022
Merrimack Repertory Theatre
Merrimack Ales,
92 Bolt Street
Lowell, MA 01852
The Playbill

2 hours with intermission

Review by Craig Idlebrook

LOWELL, Mass. — In the 21st century, the folk singer can easily be a target of ridicule, an archetype in American music which is somehow prone to both over-earnestness and affectation. However, the folk singer had more earnest origins. Folk music, as most know it, was made up of storytelling songs passed down and performed by families and groups of people, and it was the folk singer’s job to find and share these songs.

It is a testament to how finely crafted the show Woody Sez is that it can reintroduce a near-mythical folk singer in a way that helps his story and songs feel authentic and new once more. The show, a hybrid of a straightforward musical and a jukebox musical, walks the theatergoer through the life of Woody Guthrie, the guitarist and troubadour who came of age during the Dust Bowl era. His work spans a time when folk music began to be recognized by American critics as a true art form that chronicled hidden slices of American life. The compelling quartet of a cast in this touring production expertly guides us through formative vignettes of Guthrie’s life, and performs selections of his songbook with heart.

David M. Lutken serves as both MC and the title character (Woody), while Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell, and Andy Teirstein play multiple characters in Woody’s orbit. Stage bios sometimes struggle with what to leave in and what to leave out, but this script rarely stumbles in its pacing. Instead, it bumps along simply, like one of Guthrie’s songs, while also creating a through line that connects the singer’s personal pain with his desire to share the pain of others through songs.

We learn that Guthrie’s decision in his teen years to make the road his home and the masses his family is not borne of some misplaced idealism. Rather, he does this as he flees the horrors of his family and rides the chaos of boom and bust cycles. This foundation of the story helps us appreciate the bittersweet playfulness of much of his songbook, while also making the anger of his protest songs feel all the more righteous.

It would be a disservice to say that the quartet of talented musicians merely stays out of the way of Guthrie’s greatest material. They have an easy mastery with each song, enough so that they spend their time on stage listening deeply to one another and keeping the arrangements loose, a style which adheres closely to the folk tradition.

The sparse, wood-based set designed by Luke Hegel-Cantarella contains layers, much like the storytelling songs of Guthrie. Above hang striking photos of Guthrie and his family, including, most chillingly, a photo of happy children with a blurred mother figure behind them.

If there are any missteps to this production it is that it doesn’t take an even simpler path. A flashy literary quote that bookends the action feels jarringly out of place in a play made up of Guthrie’s poetry, and the production doesn’t connect the dots to make the juxtaposition feel earned. In addition, the choice to center the earliest scenes in a radio studio in New York City feels scattershot, given how much of the rest of the play is set in the rural West. However, such slight stumbles do little to detract from production detailing the beating and bruised heart of a great American troubadour, and the times that shaped him.

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