Theater J is the last place in the world you’d expect to hear a patron unfurl a lusty “Wooo-hoooo!” But I was there. It happened.
If you’re really interested in the life of Woody Guthrie, Joe Klein’s 477-page Woody Guthrie: A Life is without peer. If you’re not yet persuaded you should give a few evenings of your life over to a brilliantly written 477-page biography, then Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie, stands a fair chance of setting you straight on that. Originally staged at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2007, this low-impact but high-spirited touring musical revue packs about 30 of Guthrie’s clear-eyed hymns of perseverance—some of the finest, most enduring stalwarts of the American songbook—into slightly more than an hour and a half. Mercifully, these magnificent documents are not drizzled in Glee glaze, but performed unamplified and un-Auto-tuned by a skilled quartet on guitar, fiddle, mandolin, and various other stringed instruments while the audience is encouraged to clap and even sing along.
A little bit of biographic tissue connects these performances. The most memorable vignette has Guthrie getting thrown off a live radio show for singing the critical “relief office” lyrics to “This Land Is Your Land”—the same oft-omitted verse Pete Seeger restored when he and Bruce Springsteen sang the song at President Barack Obama’s inauguration concert at the Lincoln Memorial four years ago. Although Guthrie is remembered for chronicling the widespread misery of the Great Depression, his personal yield of sorrow was profound: In his late 30s, the first symptoms of the Huntington’s Disease that would render him mute and helpless before it killed him arrived, and though he was only 55 when he died, he outlived three of his eight children, one of whom perished in a fire as an infant. That all gets mentioned, but the show doesn’t dwell on it, emphasizing instead the vitality of his songwriting.
Lanky Guthrie stand-in David Lutken does the Jolly Banker’s share of the talking and singing. As is often the case when actors portray real people, he’s handsomer than his subject was, a judgment enabled by the portrait of Guthrie that hangs above the stage, along with a three-canvas-panel Oklahoma landscape. The Woody Lutken most resembles is the cowboy from Toy Story voiced by Tom Hanks, a similarity I found only a little bit distracting. But he’s an affable presence even when shilling briefly for the CDs on sale in the lobby, and the other three singers and players—melancholy-voiced Darcie Deaville, Helen Russell, and David Finch—offer more than capable support. Finch, who’ll be replaced by Andy Teirstein later in the run, plays a spoon solo that earned a spontaneous ovation the night I went. If percussion-by-dining utensil doesn’t sound like your particular bowl of dust, you are advised to keep your distance; I had a splendid time. If the evening never quite shakes the over-reverent feeling of a cover-band concert, that’s problem endemic to biomusicals. This one is a lot better than most.