|Helen J. Russell and David Lutken. Photo: Lanny Nagler|
By Lauren Yarger
Woody Guthrie’s life and music blends with first-string storytelling to strum out Woody Sez, a satisfying jam session closing out the season at TheaterWorks.
Guitar-playing David M. Lutken, who devised the show along with Darcie Deaville, Helen J. Russell, Andy Teirstein and Nick Corley (who also directs), portrays Guthrie -- he looks a lot like him, actually -- the folksinger and political activist who gave us tunes like “This Land is Your Land,” “This Train is Bound for Glory” and “So Long It’s Been Good to Know Yuh.”
He also music directs the show, which features cast mates David Finch, Leenya Rideout and Helen J. Russell, who play a myriad of instruments, sing along on more than 30 tunes and take on various characters from Guthrie’s life.
Set against a backdrop of farmland and photos (set design by Luke Hegel-Cantarella) vignettes of Guthrie’s troubled life play out in perfect harmony with the songs.
As a young boy, he remembers singing with his mother (depicted by Russell) who has a strange look in her eye after the family’s Oklahoma home burns down. Guthrie suffers though other tragedies, including the deaths of family members, several other fires and his mother’s deteriorating mental health which turns out to be hereditary.
“Everything we do is aimed right at going on,” his mother says.
Guthrie supports himself with singing gigs and hits the road. On the “ribbon of highway” he travels, Guthrie becomes the voice of the people struggling to survive during the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and poor working conditions before unions came to prominence. He marries three times and has a large number of children, including, if you didn’t know already, Arlo Guthrie of “Alice’s Restaurant” fame.
The cast, which tours regularly with the show, performs with ease together and on so many instruments they are impossible to count (Finch and Rideout shine on the fiddle while Russell takes on the bass and dulcimer.) Lutken’s stirring rendition of “Dust Storm Disaster” is the highlight of an already moving presentation. Lutken won regional awards for this performance in 2012.
Corley’s able direction keeps the format from becoming monotonous (though timelines sometimes are confusing). An intermission is added to the show here extending what should be a 90-minute one act to a bit-too-long two hours.
The politics are fun, and surprisingly contemporary, and even though the mood hits a few notes on the lower end of the emotional scale because of the multiple tragedies endured by Guthrie and his family over the years, this show is made for you and me.
Note: Woody Sez you can join in the fun Sundays (Aug. 17, 24, 31, Sept. 7 and 14) at 4:45 pm following the matinee performance for a free hootenanny. Bring your instruments and jam along. Show attendance not required. Free.
Woody Sez runs though Sept. 14 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays: 7:30 pm; Fridays and Saturdays: 8 pm; Weekend Matinees at 2:30 pm. Special matinee Wednesday Sept. 10 at 11 am. Tickets $35-$65: 860-527-7838; www.theaterworkshartford.org.