Saturday, September 22, 2012

Seth Saith 'Woody Sez' is Made for You and Me -- Theater Review

Theater Review

Woody Sez
The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru October 21, 2012

100 years after his birth and 45 years since his death, Woody Guthrie remains one of America's most venerated singers, songwriters and social activists.

That he was an influence, inspiration and even in the first case, mentor, to Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Joe Strummer, Tom Morello, Jeff Tweedy and numerous other musicians that I admire pretty much guarantees that Guthrie is someone I should not only appreciate, but revere.

Yet although I have always known his name and a few of his most ubiquitous songs--"This Land is My Land" foremost among them--my knowledge of his music and life has been in scant proportion to his renown.

So although I was aware going in that Woody Sez is a low-key 90-minute biologue of Guthrie's life featuring several of his songs, and word of mouth was only middling, I figured it would be worthwhile even if just in further enlightening me--to any extent--about the legendary troubadour.

And on that level it was, especially as I was able to purchase one of Northlight's day-of-show discount tickets for just $20, and only 15 minutes before showtime at that. Which isn't to say the production and performances weren't worth a bit more, but particularly as Woody Sez isn't a full-blown musical, nor even a narrative drama, the cost made the entertainment value all the more judicious.

Originally staged in 2007, the show was principally developed by David M. Lutken, who embodies Woody, although two co-performers (Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell) and the show's director, Nick Corley, are three of the other four people credited with devising it, along with Andy Teirstein.

Lutken chronicles Guthrie's life largely in the first person, with Deaville, Russell and David Finch not only playing various people in Woody's life, but performing on a vast array of instruments and each getting nice solo turns.

In sum, Woody Sez gives a basic yet informative biographical overview with Lutken serving as an affable host during a well-paced single act.

Aside from "This Land is My Land" (performed with the full, rarely sung verses), there were only a few songs I recognized, such as "This Train is Bound for Glory" and "Riding in My Car." But a total of 33 different ones were played, with all not only sounding pleasant, but giving a good Folk Singing 101 lesson about Guthrie's passionate paeans to social justice.

Songs about bankers, Wall Street, unions, hard times and other ills & issues certainly didn't lack for current resonance, and many seemed to be a bit more familiar to the mostly older folks in the audience.

While it is sufficiently entertaining for what it is, I can't that Woody Sez is terrific theater, a first-class musical or even essential viewing for anyone who doesn't possess an affinity for or curiosity about its namesake. Though it is a solidly researched and performed piece about a great musician, it lacks both the brilliant structure and more broadly thematic storytelling of 33 Variations, a play about Beethoven now getting a wonderful TimeLine Theatre production.

And while the tonality and intimacy of Woody Sez properly reflect the Dust Bowl grittiness of Guthrie's music, not only are there not exuberant production numbers such as in Jersey Boys, but even the book is far less strong. In other words, I learned considerably less about Woody Guthrie than I did about the Four Seasons, or at least less memorably.

But not all musical theater, even of the pre-existing songbook variety, lends itself to exuberant production numbers. For the right price, simply being educational and enjoyable can be more than enough. And in that regard, Seth saith Woody Sez is certainly worth a song, if not a good bit more.

No comments: