Is a jukebox musical not a jukebox musical simply because the music it features has social and political messages? Does a bio-musical that eschews any real character development or narrative deep-dive still have gravitas thanks to the relevance of the messages being sung? Is a show about one of the most significant singers in American folk music anything more than an excuse to bombard us with almost 40 songs in a two-act, two-hour-plus show?
When it comes to Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie, the answer is yes and no.
The passion project of David M. Lutken (who is presently playing Guthrie himself in the show’s Off Broadway run) and director Nick Corley, Woody Sez is an attempt to give audiences a window into the life of the man who created American classics such as "This Land Is Your Land," "So Long It’s Been Good to Know Yuh" and "Riding in My Car." Lutken wasn’t after a musical review in his effort, but rather a dramatic arc that tells Guthrie’s story while heavily featuring his music. Problem is, he gets only half of this right.
Woody Sez does give us an arc, but it’s hardly dramatic. It’s more like the typical jukebox flash-card storytelling that whisks us through a "this happened, then that happened" narrative with nary a pause for our protagonist, or us, to reflect on any of the important moments that shaped who he was and what he sang about.
But in the parlance of Woody himself – dang, this cast can sing and play their instruments, and holy jumping do Woody’s songs strike an all-too-close-for-comfort chord in our present political and social situation. It’s hard not to lean forward and shout “hell, yes” in your seat as Woody, through song, takes on heartless bankers, admonishes politicians on both sides on the aisle, advocates for the right to make a decent living, argues for the fair treatment of immigrant laborers and longs for an America that belongs to all who care for it.
It’s on Luke Hegel-Cantarella’s simple yet rustically elegant set that we’ll spend our entire evening. A photo backdrop of emblazoned-sky farms and a headshot of Woody, cigarette dangling roguishly from his lips, hovers over a stage floor made to look like wood eaten up by dust. Wooden rectangular crates litter the stage. But it’s the instruments scattered about that we notice most. Guitar, fiddle, double bass and a whole slew of other folk-music-making marvels that I couldn’t even begin to name.
Enter our cast of four — Katie Barton, Megan Loomis and Spiff Wiegang (playing multiple supporting roles and a myriad of instruments) and Ben Hope, our Woody for the show. Well, not at first. Oddly, at the outset Hope plays what we can only assume is the show’s creator, Lutken, as he tries to justify why we’re here at all with the cliché assertion, "I’ve always been a devotee of Woody’s music." Is this a show that’s going to be filtered through a fan’s eyes, we think? Apparently not, as four minutes into the thing the Lutken character disappears and Hope is relegated into the full time role of Woody himself.
From that moment on, it’s a nonstop carousel of the smallest snippet of biographical information wedged into a seemingly endless parade of Woody’s songs. Sometimes the numbers fit neatly with the story being told, and other times they’re added on just because.
We get minute slivers of Woody’s tragic past. His mother’s Huntington’s disease, mistaken for mental illness, and his sister’s death by fire, beautifully accompanied by his haunting homage, Curly Haired Baby. We sparsely see him going on the road, meeting the Depression and the Dust Bowl downtrodden and taking their stories to heart and as his own in "Dust Storm Disaster." And we are given snapshots of his increasingly angry, anti-establishment/communist views in "Union Maid and Vigilante Man."
What we don’t get is a lot of musical variation or authentic feel for what Woody’s style sounded like. Of the 30-plus songs on offer in this show, more than 20 of them are arranged so similarly as to sound almost indistinguishable. No question these immense talents onstage do their utmost on every number, but the timing, harmonies and cadence sound so same-y each time out that no matter how powerful the message in the songs, our ears glaze over in a kind of metronomic, toe-tapping, folky blur.
Alan Lomax, the American ethnomusicologist who’s credited with cataloging and bringing American folk music to the masses, would talk about Woody’s sound as something akin to music made on a moving truck or train. You’d hear the rattling and the miles covered as part of the music. A roughness that made it authentic. Instead, here, Lutken, as music director, has bopped up every number and glossed over the rough edges of Woody’s phrasing and musicality, neutering much of its heft. When this cast sings the brilliant "Pastures of Plenty," a song decrying the exploited workers’ toil for the rich’s benefit, the arrangement is so smoothed out that we barely register the exquisite lines, sung by Woody as channelling the destitute crop pickers he’s come to know:
Dig the beet from the ground and the grape from the vine
To set on your table, your light sparkling wine
It’s all made more frustrating by a few utterly brilliant numbers that elevate this show from frothy persona confection to something more significant. "Talking Dust Bowl" is a vivid account of the Okies' necessary flight west out of the dust disaster to find work and safe ground in California. Here Lutken totally reinvents Woody’s song in a demonstrative fiddle arrangement that brings new life to the already imaginative song. "Deportees," a protest piece about the racist treatment of migrant workers, may not have as creative a treatment, but if there’s any question about Woody’s relevance in modern-day America, this speaks to it and the show is smart enough to milk the number for all it’s worth.
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Juxtaposed to all the numbers packed into this musical are the things the show glosses over or leaves out completely. By many accounts, including that of his closest mentee and loyal protégé, Pete Seeger (who is featured briefly in the show), Woody was a bit of an asshole. Mean, judgmental, not fun to be around. Brilliantly talented, no question. But a man who belittled other talent, intimidated people on purpose, cheated on wives, left them and remarried several times. But instead of folding this into the mix of the man, Woody Sez paints a picture of a relatively affable, saintlike figure living life on the road as a kind of proto-hippie activist superhero until the same disease that claimed his mother came for him as well.
Nothing wrong with giving Woody the star treatment. After all, the man gave us the blueprint for the white-working-man hymn, the song style of the white downtrodden. Woody’s work greatly influenced Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen, among many others. Why then expose the fact that he was a bit of a shit? Frankly, because that would have been the dramatic arc that Lutken was looking for. The complex flavoring in the recipe that created the man who made such crucial music. A man who was messy and not always palatable.
But that’s ultimately the thing with jukebox musicals. They don’t have time or space for messy. They need to get in, sing loud, get the audience toe-tapping and fist-pumping, and get out before stuff gets too deep. One can only wonder how Woody would feel having his life and music rendered in this fashion. “It's a folk singer's job to comfort disturbed people and to disturb comfortable people,” Woody said. Perhaps, then, he would have liked it if we got to be a little disturbed by the man behind the music.
Woody Sez continues through September 3 at 3201 Allen Parkway. For information, call 713-527-0123 or visit stagestheatre.com.$21-$56.