Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie
Words and Music by Woody Guthrie, Devised by David M. Lutken with Nick Corley and Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell, and Andy Teirstein; Scenic Design, Luke Hegel-Cantarella; Costume Design, Jeffrey Meek; Lighting Design, Matt Frey; Stage Manager, Katie Ailinger; Music Director, David M. Lutken; Director, Nick Corley
COMPANY: David M. Lutken, Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell, Andy Teirstein; Alternates and Understudies: Mimi Bessette, David Finch
Performances extended through June 3 at American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA; Box Office 617-547-8300 or www.americanrepertorytheater.org
Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie is exactly what you expect it to be and more. The company of four talented musicians, employing twenty instruments, performs about thirty songs in a ninety-minute program that sketches the life and times that were the foundation of Guthrie's music and made him into an icon of the folk/protest culture. It is also a love letter crafted with abiding care and respect by a quartet of artisans who ply their trade in a simple, straightforward manner that pays tribute to the style of Woody's times. Their voices and instruments are unamplified, but they put across Woody's message loud and clear.
David M. Lutken inhabits the persona of Woody as the folksy spokesperson of the group. Seated on The Edge of the stage with his guitar, his ease and warmth are inviting, helping the audience feel as if we are being welcomed to his living room rather than an impersonal theater space. Dressed in khakis and a green work shirt with the sleeves rolled up past his elbows, occasionally topping off the look with a fisherman's cap, the lanky Lutken suggests the many phases of Woody's journey from childhood to drifter to established balladeer, from Oklahoma to California to New York and places in between, by the power of his charisma.
Every step of the way he talks about key events in the Guthrie family, including his mother's ill health, life-altering fires, and his father's financial fortunes and failings. Once Woody hit the road at the age of sixteen to get away from these personal tragedies, his observations and experiences shaped his world view anew and he found his calling, to provide a voice for those who could not speak for themselves. Like his fellow Oklahoman Will Rogers, politics and philosophy became the raw materials of his art, but with a more pointed edge. His politics were not partisan ("Right wing, left wing, chicken wing…"), but he was a passionate proponent for labor and, although he never joined, associated with members of the Communist Party USA.
Lutken's fellow musician/actors are Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell, and Andy Teirstein, who play a multitude of roles and instruments. Songs featuring Deaville and Teirstein on fiddle, Russell on double bass, and Teirstein on banjo are among the highlights, but that is not to take anything away from the rest of the instrumentation, all of which is outstanding. Lutken plays a mean blues harmonica in addition to his strong guitar playing, and all four contribute great vocals individually and collectively. If this were no more than a concert of Woody Guthrie songs, this quartet would be worth the ticket price, but Director Nick Corley has worked with Lutken to mold the show into a theatrical piece with a story arc to support the musical selections. The simplicity of the scenic, costume, and lighting designs maintains the focus on Guthrie's words and music where it belongs.