This is the third time this season that I am going to write about something put on by the Cleveland Playhouse that was not a play. The first was “Devil’s Music,” a one-man musical piece about the life of Bessie Smith; the second was “Maestro,” which chronicled the story of Leonard Bernstein. Now, for the third piece, I am reviewing “Woody Sez,” a one-man musical biopic about Woody Guthrie.
In terms of all technical aspects, “Woody” is quite impressive. All the instruments are accurate to the period, right down to the banjo and mandolin. Guthrie’s guitar even has a small chip on the front and the famous “This machine kills fascists” label adorns the lower corner.
The music is equally authentic and just as heartwarming. It’s wonderful to hear his jaunty folk-melodies, some of which almost any American can remember singing as a child i.e. “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land.” You can even sing along. On top of being consummate musicians, the actors incorporate no small amount of showmanship into their performance. Actor David M. Lutken locks his arms with one of his fellow actors and holds a chord while his partner plucks the notes and strums. David Finch even plays the silverware before juggling it for a finish. All of the actors are extremely comfortable switching from one instrument to the next, going through harmonicas, guitars, banjos, mandolins, a bass fiddle and a violin, sometimes in the same song.
Sadly, while the music a feast for the ears, it is the only aspect of the show that is noteworthy. This show has no plot, no conflict and no character development. There is only a paper-thin narrative structure that roughly corresponds to the chronology of Guthrie’s life. Even so, his life events are glossed over and have little impact on the overarching story, except to move us from one musical number to the next. In one 30 second scene, Woody recounts the death of his daughter. Ever so briefly his eyes tear up and I begin to wonder if maybe, just maybe, there might be something meaningful going on here. His head droops and suddenly, up pops his head, tears gone, back to regaling us with more travel stories. And this was one of the experiences that shook the real Guthrie so badly; he never recovered. To say nothing about the death of his mother, his abandonment of his first wife (events treated with such callousness), you would think he was strolling by a TV in a shop window.
The lack of an emotionally engaging or interesting plot is no fault of the performers, who do an excellent job with what few lines they have (only Lutken, who plays Guthrie flawlessly down to the Okie accent, has a consistent character throughout). Rather, the fault lies with the limitations imposed by the genre of musical biopics. This was the same with “Maestro” and “Devil’s Music.” With music the main focus of the production, we miss out on traditional aspects which define theater, i.e. plot, narrative, conflict and relationships between characters. As a result, we really are watching a theatrical tribute concert, rather than a play. I’ll admit that there was some novelty the first time, when I watched “Devil’s Music.” However, by this point, the style has grown stale and formulaic. All of the biopics tell a chronological tale of the character’s life and end with their death.
Another problem with biopics is forced perspective. The character engages the audience in a sort of one-sided conversation where he tells his story. However, without other substantial characters or points of perspective, the audience is unable to see the unreliability of the narrator. As a result, these biopics become almost demagogic in the sense that the audience must either agree with the character or not enjoy the rest of the show.
So, as much as I enjoyed “Woody Sez” on a superficial level, I can’t say anything about it as a play because, alas, it wasn’t a play. It’s a tribute to Woody Guthrie, a classic American hero and, in that sense, it’s highly polished. However, it, along with the previous musical biopics, does little for CPH’s reputation as an innovative regional theater.