Woody Guthrie Dreams
nytheatre.com review by Michael Mraz
September 15, 2011
Woody Guthrie was a man whose wealth of big ideas exceeded his small frame. He created the cookie cutter for the American Protest song, and without him we may not have had great American songwriters like Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, and countless others—who have forever championed the working class and blended music and incendiary political views. He died from complications of Huntington's disease, a debilitating neurological disorder. In the end, a man who had more to say and more dreams to tell than most of us could hope to in our lifetimes was trapped, silent and immobile, within his own body, before dying at the age of 55. Woody Guthrie Dreams, conceived by Michael Patrick Flanagan Smith and playing at Theater for the New City, is a musical love letter to Guthrie, and attempts to conjure what the legend's final dream may have been.
Woody Guthrie Dreams is structured as a whirlwind of a fever dream, taking the audience on a journey through Guthrie's creative peak, through a series of vignettes and narration. It blends the historical and the surreal, as Guthrie interacts with his family and his contemporaries (such as Pete Seeger and Cisco Houston) as well as fantastical, philosophical interactions with Jesus and Joseph Stalin. The show is sprinkled with live performances by the cast and supporting musicians (the very talented Nick Russo and Stephanie Allen, who play seemingly whatever instrument is needed to fill out the song), alternating between Guthrie's famous numbers and more obscure pieces in his catalogue.
The show gets stronger as it goes on. The book in much of the first act is uneven and struggles to find the right balance and flow when interweaving the songs and text, but around the end of the act the show seems to find its heart with the chronicle of Woody's relationship with Martha Graham dancer Marjorie Mazia, his second wife. From the playful inception of their relationship (in a scene beautifully and sweetly played by Smith as Guthrie and Jennifer Restivo as Marjorie) to the end of his "dream," the show hits its stride and every piece of music enhances the emotions playing out onstage.
Michael Patrick Flanagan Smith's portrayal of Guthrie is powerful and complete, it feels almost flawless. His physicality, his voice, and his singing make it feel as if we're watching Guthrie's ghost onstage. His obvious love for Woody and his detailed commitment and study of the role keeps the show glued together, even when it's at its weakest moments early. Smith's Guthrie, both in his portrayal and writing, is a complete human, transcending his legend. We see him at his very worst and very best. Restivo's Marjorie actually elevates Smith's already fantastic portrayal, with her arrival. Restivo is charming, heartbreaking, and constantly interesting to watch, and her and Smith's great chemistry make them both better. Her monologue describing the events that led to their first daughter's death is perfectly nuanced and tragically touching; she is the heart of the piece.
The surreal "dream" elements of the piece probably could have been highlighted a bit more and balanced more effectively with the timeline of Woody's life (though Ben Curtis's turn as Jesus is constantly entertaining), but the show lives through the cast's love of its legendary central character and his music. Smith and Caleb Stine's arrangements of Guthrie's music are beautiful and really breathe life into Guthrie's celebrated wealth of songs. And with stunningly strong performances, Woody Guthrie Dreams is a fitting, lovely tribute to a man who shaped our country through his music and poetry.