BWW Review: WOODY SEZ: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF WOODY GUTHRIE at Ivoryton Playhouse
A history lesson with music is the perfect way to describe "Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie," that is now playing at the Ivoryton Playhouse through November 10. There's no need for sepia toned distance as this work covers the ups and downs of Guthrie's journeys and songs. With a marvelous cast of four, led by co-creator David M. Lutken, Guthrie's legacy is given an immediacy and excitement that brings an audience into the heyday of protest music that grew out of what Ken Burns described as "hillbilly music" in his recent documentary on the country genre.
The multi-talented Lutken has made a cottage industry out of his explorations of the life of Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, the singer-songwriter called "the original folk hero" by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame upon his induction in 1988. He has toured "Woody Sez" in multiple venues around the country and the world, including a spell at Hartford's Theaterworks and off-Broadway. It's hard to believe that this is the first time Lutken and company have performed the show at Ivoryton though, since Lutken has made multiple appearances at the theater in the past, including "The Road: My Life with John Denver," and as Johnny Cash in "Ring of Fire." It was during the latter's run that Hurricane Irene led to several days of power outages, during which Lutken rallied the community with a series of outdoor hootenannies on the Ivoryton steps.
But now Ivoryton audiences are getting to experience the story of the man who wrote "This Land Is Your Land" as a sort of protest against the overplayed and what Guthrie thought was the overly sentimental "God Bless America." As Lutken says as he portrays Guthrie with an authentic sounding Oklahoma drawl, Woody wanted an inclusive anthem that could speak to all people regardless of their religious belief or political persuasion. That he succeeded is attested to by an audience sing-along late in show in with virtually everyone familiar with the melody and the lyrics, while still retaining its power as a protest song.
As directed by Nick Corley, another of the co-devisers of the show, the two-act evening moves along quite smoothly, with an appropriate mix of Guthrie narration and folk music-both familiar and unfamiliar. Lutken is backed by a trio of remarkable musicians, including Darcie Deaville, also a co-deviser who has toured with the show numerous times over the years and possesses a powerful voice that adds extra strength to ballads and anthems. The multi-talented David Finch is called on to play a variety of musical instruments, from banjos to slide whistles, and morphs without difficulty into a number of distinctly individual side characters, with just the addition of a hat or a squinting of his eyes.
Joining the troupe with the Ivoryton engagement is Maggie Hollinbeck, a bass player who Lutken indicated he has known for years and has been encouraging to join the cast. She boasts an equally clever personality that allows her to play a variety of women in Guthrie's life, including several of his wives (he had three, a fact that the character of Woody doesn't shy away from).
The production follows Guthrie from his birth in Oklahoma in 1912 into a comfortable middle class family that saw its fortunes dramatically decline due to a collapse in the real estate market and his mother's decline to what is now recognized as the genetic disease Huntington's chorea, which ultimately felled Woody as well. Following his mother's passing in state mental hospital and his father's personal disintegration, the teenage Guthrie took to various artistic ambitions, including cartooning, busking, painting and writing, before taking to the road during the Great Depression, where he encountered refugees from Oklahoma's Dust Bowl, fellow hobos, and other migrants heading to California for what they hoped was a better life.
These friendships and their frequently harrowing stories inspired a lot of Guthrie's music and pushed him to identify with the growing Communist party, though Guthrie himself never became a member. In California, he hosted a daily radio show where he could share his music and develop his homespun style and philosophy, which he would often preface with the words "Woody Sez" to confirm that these were indeed his strong personal beliefs. His fame and wanderlust eventually landed him in New York City, where he encountered a plethora of fellow folk singers, along with the inspiration to further develop his talents. While an early critic of the moneyed-class, Guthrie was also a strong anti-fascist, who wrote equally pointed and critical ballads against Hitler, Mussolini and others in support of the war movement.
The evening treats the audience to such Guthrie standards as "This Train is Bound for Glory," "The Sinking of the Reuben James," and the "Ballad of Tom Joad," as well as some of his more humorous efforts as "So Long It's Been Good to Know Ya" and several of his compositions inspired by the innocence and hopefulness of children, among which was "Riding in My Car (Car)," one of his own family's favorites.
Luke Cantarella's set allows the four singer-musicians to remain the prominent focus of the evening, with various musical instruments scattered across the back and side walls, and some blocks, chairs and props to represent cars, front porches, stages and studios. Woody's narration and the cast's melodies are amply supported by a thrilling series of projections and film which anchor the history into the respective time and place.
Jeffrey Meek, who also serves as the resident costume designer for the Lyric Theater of Oklahoma, here provides the cast with flexible outfits that capture the various periods of Guthrie's life, while helping to identify various characters and reflect the passage of time.
But the main attraction of "Woody Sez" remains the music and thankfully there is plenty of it over the two acts. The selection of songs provides a great overview of the range and scope of Guthrie's output, but since he wrote over 3,000 songs, it is obviously too difficult to capture most of them on stage. Lutken does mention Woody's participation in Alan Lomax's grand compilation of folk songs for the Library of Congress with both singing and reminiscences, and history does let us know that Woody himself recorded hundreds of albums for Folkways Records.
It is clear that Lutken and company absolutely adore performing Guthrie's music and telling his story. Their enthusiasm is contagious and if by the end you're not humming "This Land Is Your Land," or wondering why we don't have great protest singers in this day and age, you must have been called away on business for most of the show. For its impossible not to be caught up in power and influence of this iconic figure, who never lived to see his mantle taken up by the likes of Bob Dylan or Joan Baez in the '60's, or his own son, Arlo's, success as an anti-war balladeer in the late 60's and early '70's.
For information and tickets, contact the Ivoryton Playhouse box office at 860.767.7318 or visit www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.