“Woody Sez,” at Seattle Repertory Theatre, is a buoyant introduction to Woody Guthrie, and a reminder that early-20th-century American populism was a very different kettle of vittles.
Every age needs its troubadours, and the 1930s got one that was bound for glory: Woodrow Wilson Guthrie.
As elaborated in “Woody Sez,” the hearty bio-musical now at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Guthrie was born in rural Oklahoma in 1912, authored and recorded hundreds of songs (including the alternative national anthem “This Land Is Your Land,” and Washington’s own unofficial anthem “Roll On, Columbia”), was an impassioned union organizer and crusader for the American underclass, and packed a remarkable amount of ramblin’ and expressing into his 55 years on the planet.
His enduring rousers and ballads, and powerful influence on American popular music — via acolytes Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and other socially conscious singer-songwriters — have kept Guthrie’s flame burning bright. So have biographical films and stage shows like “Woody Sez,” which chronicles the enduring folk hero’s life and music with affection and clarity.
Through Jan. 29, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center; $17-$52 (206-443-2222 or seattlerep.org).
“Woody Sez” is a buoyant introduction to Guthrie, and a reminder that early 20th-century American populism was a very different kettle of vittles from today’s brand. But it is also formulaic and fairly bland, in relation to a Rep season that is relying more on imported talent and joint productions instead of fresh, homegrown material that speaks to current burning concerns.
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Like Guthrie, in his peripatetic days in the Great Depression, “Woody Sez” has been around — successfully touring the U.S. and internationally since premiering at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2007.
On a stage simply dressed with photos of Guthrie and his territory, the basic format is much like previous docu-musical revues the Rep has hosted.
The four-member cast, led by co-creator David M. Lutken, figuratively transforms the Rep mainstage into a front porch hootenanny, greeting the audience with romping bluegrass tunes played live on fiddles, guitar, banjo, mandolin, et al. Soon the lanky, drawling Lutken charmingly assumes the role of Woody, establishing from the get-go that even during a national radio broadcast at “Rockyfeller” Center’s swanky Rainbow Room, the man never lost his homespun manner or advocacy for social justice.
In tunes like the recurring “Tom Joad’s Blues” (based on John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”), Guthrie sang of the poor and exploited working people he knew in his youth and on the road in the Dust Bowl, and felt deeply for.
Drawing from letters, essays, newspaper columns, the semi-fictionalized autobiography “Bound for Glory” and other writings, “Woody Sez” takes a two-hour, ambling freight train ride through Guthrie’s tragedy-scarred childhood, his hobo travels and World War II stint with the Merchant Marine, ending up in his final years as a rediscovered folk hero in Brooklyn with his family (including future troubadour son Arlo), enduring the hereditary horrors of Huntington’s disease.
“All you can write is what you see,” Guthrie declared, and what he saw made him champion the poor and powerless over the wealthy and oppressive, but not without cracker-barrel wit and a wicked sense of fun. (He was unschooled, but no naif.)
The show features some two dozen Guthrie tunes (“Pastures of Plenty,” “So Long It’s Been Good to Know Ya,” the less-familiar “Curly Headed Baby” and “Vigilante Man”). Lutken is easily the best singer in the cast, but his cohorts (David Finch and co-creators Darcie Deaville and Helen Jean Russell) harmonize and instrumentalize with gusto.
Ecocatastrophe, wide income disparity, homelessness, inequality — all these were part of the landscape of Guthrie’s America, and today’s. But joining in a nostalgic singalong to “Union Maid,” one wonders how Seattle’s gifted young musical-theater artists might reinterpret and re-contextualize his songs, finding the parallels and differences in a time when a populist movement cheers on Trump rather than rooting for FDR.
That would be a different show, of course. But it’s the sort of thing Seattle Rep has the platform and the talent pool to tackle. So why not?