Walking into “Woody Sez” on opening night last weekend at the Arts Garage in Delray Beach, my knowledge of the influential singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie was sorely limited. After an hour and a half of musical revue, humor, pathos, historical travelogue and reightous anger, I feel I know him like a long-lost ancestor, spotting his influence on countless musicians I am more familiar with – Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, etc. Guthrie laid the groundwork for all of them: The marriage of the folksong and the protest song only seems so intractable today because of Guthrie’s perseverance in overcoming the outright hostility he faced in combining them.
The touring show, which runs through April 8, arrived the Arts Garage as the first production of Lou Tyrrell’s new theater company, and it represents a full-circle return for the Tyrrell: Eighteen years ago, he staged “Woody Guthrie’s America” at his Pope Theatre Company, which would later become Florida Stage. Guthrie has been in the news a lot lately, given that 2012 would have been the man’s hundredth birthday, and chances are he would have liked “Woody Sez.” Loose, witty and informal, the cast of four plays all of its own music during the show and even before it, nicely transitioning from preshow instrumental tunes into the production proper, which features more than 25 Guthrie songs interspersed with narratives from his life.
David M. Lutken is the show’s writer and musical director, a multitalented star on and off Broadway who also plays the main Guthrie role. He’s clearly a great singer with a passion for Guthrie’s lyrics, and he conveys all of the dramatic depth of his life story – the burning down of his home, his mother’s mental illness, the loss of family members – with a genuine sense of anguish. He’s joined by David Finch, an animated off-Broadway veteran proficient in sound effects, and Helen Jean Russell and Megan Loomis, two talented performers who probably could have been utilized more in the show’s foreground (though Russell would gain much from projecting a little louder).
The show still has room for improvement. The first half never settles into a comfortable flow of music and story, too often interrupting the songs just when they’re getting good. “Woody Sez” grows more compelling the more Lutken lets the songs breathe on their own, letting us enjoy them in all their elastic durability, from rousing, full-bodied anthems to melancholy ballads as fragile an antique porcelain. The exuberance onstage is so infectious – not to mention the pro-union message so resounding in today’s political climate – that when “Woody Sez” finds itself, it’s a joyous tribute: a centennial birthday party with a roomful of fellow-travelers.
Show times for “Woody Sez” are 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays to Fridays, 6 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, through April 8. The Arts Garage is at 180 N.E. First St., Delray Beach. Call 561/450-6357 or visit artsgarage.org.