As a reviewer, it’s nice to occasionally cover a show so good that it makes my job easy. Theater J’s return engagement of Woody Sez is just such a show, brimming with toe-tapping music, rich emotion, and powerful messages that illuminate the life and works of American folk music giant Woody Guthrie.
Guthrie’s important musical legacy includes a huge catalog of ballads, traditional songs, political anthems, and children’s melodies. Growing up poor in Oklahoma and working among migrant laborers in the Dust Bowl era deeply affected his worldview and songwriting, earning him the nickname “The Dustbowl Troubadour”. Guthrie toured extensively throughout the U.S., eventually becoming a folk icon and powerful voice for the rights of farmers and blue collar workers. In fact, the original 1940 version of his famous ballad “This Land is Your Land” included explicit criticism of capitalism and economic inequality. He was also a staunch opponent of the Axis Powers in WWII, serving in the Merchant Marines throughout Europe and Africa and prominently displaying a sticker on his guitar that read “This Machine Kills Fascists”.
Dallas, Texas native David M. Lutken brings Guthrie’s complex prairie philosopher persona to life with practiced confidence and genuine love for his subject. The effortlessly likeable Lutken is the main creator, narrator, and protagonist of Woody Sez, and he juggles his multiple hats with aplomb. He revolves in and out of the action, telling jokes, dancing in the aisles, and playing guitar and singing with the ease of a veteran performer. Lutken alternates smoothly between lighthearted melodies and serious laments about national injustices, doing justice to Guthrie’s unique folksy stylings.
Moments of personal tragedy lend an important private dimension to Guthrie’s public crusade for the American underclass. Guthrie had a surprisingly tragic life filled with illness, marital strife, and loss, which Lutken and company explore with delicate care. These humanizing events recall the way Jersey Boys created a richer portrait of Frankie Valli by seamlessly incorporating humbling business and personal losses into his larger story. Lutken is at his most sympathetic in these moments of strife, wherein he reveals real fear and human frailty behind Guthrie’s outsize public image.
Lutken’s costar Leenya Rideout brings her lovely soprano and equal violin, guitar, and dulcimer skills to satisfying turns as Guthrie’s sister, bandmate, and others. Her haunting rendition of “The Ballad of Tom Joad,” about a struggling laborer roaming the American backroads, provides a musical through-line that traces Woody’s rambling life through its ups and downs. Rideout also embraces the spotlight with her turn as a resilient worker in a powerhouse rendition of “Union Maid”.
Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie
Closes December 14, 2013
1529 Sixteenth Street, NW
1 hour, 50 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $35 – $65
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Co-stars David Finch and Helen Jean Russell prove equally versatile in acting, singing, and playing through a diverse slate of roles and songs from Guthrie’s catalog. Finch’s most notable turn is his energetic rendition of “Jackhammer John”, wherein he combines a fine Baritone and complicated guitar fingerpicking in a bluesy ode to the day laborer. Meanwhile, Russell adds many a quality performance, with none so compelling as her tragic outing as Guthrie’s illness-stricken mother.
Set Designer Luke Hegel-Cantarella has distilled Guthrie’s ethos and background into a series of arresting portraits of the musician’s many selves. Large black and white shots of Guthrie at various stages of life hang above the stage, showing the promise of his early years side by side with the wear and tear accumulated through years of touring. The backdrop is a striking portrait of American farm life, displaying a rusted tractor and shabby hay bale set against a purple sunset.
Woody Sez uses a polished exploration of Guthrie’s life and deep catalog to explore the underlying promises and failures of the American Dream. The only thing that might have made this show better is an improved mic setup, which would have elevated the more delicate harmonies and misheard lyrics above the collective noise of the quartet. On the whole, it’s a triumphant piece of theater that simultaneously delivers larger than life commentary and moving personal drama in the tale of an American legend.
Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie . Devised by David M. Lutken, Nick Corley, Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell, Andy Teirstein . Directed by Nick Corley . Presented by Theater J . Reviewed by Ben Demers.