Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie


Theater Review: “Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie” at Theater J
A touching and haunting tribute to the troubadour of hard times, “Woody Sez” is an evening of great folk music and a portrait of a restless soul.
By Leslie Milk

Published November 13, 2012

Woody Guthrie wrote great songs such as “This Land Is Your Land” and “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh.” He adapted and popularized old folk classics like “This Train Is Bound for Glory” and “It Takes a Worried Man to Sing a Worried Song.” He awakened the interest of new generations in the rich tapestry of American folk music and inspired the likes of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.

But Guthrie’s troubled life in tough times often led him to the darkness rather then the light. There are more sad notes than happy ones in Woody Sez, David M. Lutken’s tribute to Guthrie, which coincides with the folk singer’s 100th-anniversary year.

Lutken effectively channels Guthrie, a child of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression whose mother went insane from the hereditary Huntington’s Disease. Guthrie became an itinerant musician at an early age, riding the rails and singing for his supper. He wrote songs about what he saw and the outrage he felt at the injustices suffered by poor people who lost everything they had. He became a communist and gave up a lucrative network radio show because he refused to censure his leftist lyrics. He sang with Leadbelly and Pete Seeger, adding his anthems to theirs.

Like Guthrie, Lutken is a charismatic performer with more personality and musicality than vocal brilliance—a combination that serves him well in this production. He has gathered a talented trio who play a passel of instruments from bass fiddle to spoons to re-create Guthrie’s music.

Woody Sez debuted at the 2007 Edinburgh Fringe festival and has since been produced in London, Europe, and in several cities in the United States. Lutken, its major creator and star, sings, plunks, and dances his way through Guthrie’s life from Oklahoma to Brooklyn, until he ultimately succumbed to Huntington’s Disease and was hospitalized at age 42.

It is a short, sad story and the first act of Woody Sez doesn’t have a lot of happy moments. The fact that the show ends on an up note is a tribute to the incredible music and the performers.

Theatre J plans a hootenanny “sing along” after the shows on Sunday nights. No need to wait, though. If you know the words, you can sing along on the choruses. These songs are our songs. Woody would expect nothing less.

Washington Post

Review of ‘Woody Sez’ at Theater J

Bound For Glory!

By Peter Marks, Published: November 13

It’s Folk Night all this month around the figurative fire at Camp Theater J, and all that’s missing are the s’mores. Enlivened by the tunes of the great troubadour of America’s disenfranchised, Woody Guthrie, and the buoying talents of four actor-singers, the company’s space in the D.C. Jewish Community Center requires as accompaniment only the percussion of tapping feet.

“Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie” is an amiable 90 minutes of melodies that Guthrie wrote and performed over the course of an activist career: “Union Maid,” “Sinking of the Reuben James,” “Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done,” and of course, “This Land Is Your Land” are among the nearly 30 songs performed by a quartet of crooning musicians, who frequently pick up and lay aside the wide assortment of guitars, banjos, basses, violins and autoharps displayed across the Goldman Theater stage.

The musicianship is first-class: Led by the nimble strumming of David M. Lutken, who devised the show with director Nick Corley and plays the role of Guthrie, the cast effortlessly adapts to the rousing spirit of the songwriter’s heartland balladeering and protest music. If you’re less than besotted by paeans to the proletariat or by theme songs of the left —the cast indulges in a harmonious rendition of the bracing socialist anthem “The Internationale” — you might not want to aggravate the fresh wounds of the election cycle just completed with the lyrics of this particular entertainment. (Lutken fashions a version of “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh” as a sort of farewell to Republican designs this year on the presi­dency.

As presented here, though, Guthrie’s music is more seductive than antagonistic, often managing to express with dry-eyed humor the bitter experiences of the poor. In the Dust Bowl ditty “Do Re Mi,” he finds wry musical language for his disgust at monetary barriers established to keep destitute Depression-era travelers from entering the Golden State: “California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see,” Lutken as Guthrie sings. “But believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot / If you ain’t got the do re mi.”

His cast mates, Darcie Deaville, Helen Russell and David Finch — the last of whom will be replaced by Andy Teirstein after Sunday — stirringly fill out the harmonies and assist in recounting the story of Guthrie’s early life in Oklahoma, his rise as a folk singer on radio and his emergence as a political voice on the left. The tall, lean Lutken looks enough like the Guthrie pictured in black-and-white photos hung over the stage to provide a convincing impression, one that’s aided further by his charmingly twangy locutions.

The topical similarities of some of the songs do provoke a few yawns, but “Woody Sez” says good night well before its welcome is worn out. It’s pleasant to be reminded that once upon a time in America, raising one’s voice in dissent could make for some beautiful music.

Washington Jewish Week

A touch of a Jewish soul
'Woody Sez' onstage at DCJCC

by Lisa Traiger
Arts Correspondent

He was the folk poet of the downtrodden and disaffected. A traveling minstrel for struggling farmers, migrant workers, day laborers and union members, Woody Guthrie wrote and sang anthems to democracy and freedom to both assuage and ignite the American spirit. This month Theater J celebrates this guitar-wielding poet of the people in David M. Lutken's compact touring production Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie at its Goldman Theater through Dec. 2. An Okie with a hardscrabble history of poverty and family breakup, Guthrie seems an unlikely hero of American Jews. And yet his twangy, countrified folk stylings on guitar and harmonica and his powerful and provocative lyrics with their socialist bent have captured the hearts and spirits of generations - of both Americans and of Jews.

Who doesn't get a bit choked up singing "This Land Is Your Land"? Sure Jewish landsman Irving Berlin penned the uber-patriotic hymn that swells stadium crowds with pride: "God Bless America." But Guthrie's "This Land" is something more: after verses about "endless skyways" and "diamond deserts," here's the sixth stanza: "In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,/By the relief office I seen my people; /As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking /Is this land made for you and me?" Little wonder, then, that Guthrie faced censorship throughout his career, particularly early on.

On the centenary of his birth, Lutken's musical bio-drama Woody Sez follows Guthrie's life, from his birth in Okemah, Okla., through the oil boom and bust, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl disaster, World War II and his time in New York, where he lived on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island with his Jewish wife, former dancer Marjorie Mazia. Throughout, Guthrie played a guitar with a note pasted on it that declared: "This machine kills fascists."

Lutken plays Guthrie with a beat-up guitar strapped over his shoulder and is joined by three other fine actor-musicians - Darcie Deauville on fiddle, mandolin and other strings; David Finch on fiddle, mouth harp, spoons and assorted instruments; and Helen Russell on bass and guitar - who take on various characters throughout the musician's life. They sing and strum through a fraction of the Guthrie songbook - after all he wrote and composed about 3,000 songs - laying out the basics of the American troubadour's biography in 95 minutes. Classics like "This Train Is Bound for Glory" and "The Ballad of Tom Joad" - its nod, of course, is to Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" - share space with less familiar tunes like "Jolly Banker" and "Columbus Stockade." The stage, bare save for musical instruments and rough-hewn crates and stools (designer Luke Hegel-Cantarella), and the home-spun plaid shirts and shift dresses by Jeffrey Meek add a simple, country feel to the proceedings. In the second half, his 1961 "Union Maid" got an audience of over-50s humming and singing along earlier this week.

The show zips along, not dwelling long or in detail on any one episode in Guthrie's life. Therefore it pays to know a bit about Guthrie's Jewish connections. While in New York, which was a hotbed of artistic and creative productivity in the 1940s, not to mention socialist politics, Guthrie was tapped by choreographer Sophie Maslow, who was choreographing her paean to the American spirit Folksay using a collection of his "Dust Bowl Ballads." It was through that connection that Mazia and Guthrie met. It was Mazia's job to teach Guthrie to play his songs the same way each time, otherwise the dancers would get off count and end up running into one another.

Mazia's mother was Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt, and although her parents initially disapproved of the pairing - in fact, Mazia left her first husband to marry Guthrie - soon Greenblatt and Guthrie found common ground through their shared love of words and poetry. The young couple settled in Coney Island across street from the Greenblatts and Guthrie began investigating Judaism, even, reported his son, singer-songwriter Arlo, taking a course at Brooklyn Community College. Greenblatt and Guthrie on occasion took to sharing their writings with one another and Guthrie even composed a cycle of Chanukah songs - released in 2006 by the Klezmatics.

Guthrie's legacy is broad and deep. The show's title, Woody Sez, comes from the name of a news column he wrote in the voice and dialect of an Okie hillbilly in The Daily Worker, the Communist Party's newspaper, in 1939 and 1940. His was the voice of a generation. And Guthrie's influence on American popular and folk music of the second half of the 20th century remains lasting. Beyond his own lengthy and prolific career, his son, Arlo Guthrie, forged his own successful musical career in his father's footsteps, beginning with his still popular "Alice's Restaurant" and its not so subtle anti-Vietnam war message. The Guthrie family tradition is far from done, continuing as Sara Lee Guthrie, Arlo's daughter, has embarked on her own singing career (and her voice has recently been heard as part of the "occupy" movement).

But Guthrie's reach is far more extensive. During his lifetime, he worked with and collaborated with the likes of Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter, Pete Seeger and the Carter family; he became a mentor and inspiration to Bob Dylan and Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Today dozens, if not hundreds, of artists cover Guthrie's songs from Bruce Springsteen to Wilco, Judy Collins to John Mellancamp, Taj Mahal to DJ Logic, Richie Havens to Billy Bragg - not to mention the thousands of kids who went to Jewish summer camps and sing his songs with gusto by the campfire. While Woody Guthrie lacks the genetics to make him an authentic Jew, his songs and legacy reverberate with a Jewish spirit and there's more than a touch of Jewish soul in the musical bequest he has left behind. Woody Sez provides a good starting point for reconnecting with Guthrie.

Washington City Paper

This musical revue kills fascists.
By Chris Klimek • November 16, 2012
This Band Is Your Band: A quartet does Guthrie’s classics.

Theater J is the last place in the world you’d expect to hear a patron unfurl a lusty “Wooo-hoooo!” But I was there. It happened.

If you’re really interested in the life of Woody Guthrie, Joe Klein’s 477-page Woody Guthrie: A Life is without peer. If you’re not yet persuaded you should give a few evenings of your life over to a brilliantly written 477-page biography, then Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie, stands a fair chance of setting you straight on that. Originally staged at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2007, this low-impact but high-spirited touring musical revue packs about 30 of Guthrie’s clear-eyed hymns of perseverance—some of the finest, most enduring stalwarts of the American songbook—into slightly more than an hour and a half. Mercifully, these magnificent documents are not drizzled in Glee glaze, but performed unamplified and un-Auto-tuned by a skilled quartet on guitar, fiddle, mandolin, and various other stringed instruments while the audience is encouraged to clap and even sing along.

A little bit of biographic tissue connects these performances. The most memorable vignette has Guthrie getting thrown off a live radio show for singing the critical “relief office” lyrics to “This Land Is Your Land”—the same oft-omitted verse Pete Seeger restored when he and Bruce Springsteen sang the song at President Barack Obama’s inauguration concert at the Lincoln Memorial four years ago. Although Guthrie is remembered for chronicling the widespread misery of the Great Depression, his personal yield of sorrow was profound: In his late 30s, the first symptoms of the Huntington’s Disease that would render him mute and helpless before it killed him arrived, and though he was only 55 when he died, he outlived three of his eight children, one of whom perished in a fire as an infant. That all gets mentioned, but the show doesn’t dwell on it, emphasizing instead the vitality of his songwriting.

Lanky Guthrie stand-in David Lutken does the Jolly Banker’s share of the talking and singing. As is often the case when actors portray real people, he’s handsomer than his subject was, a judgment enabled by the portrait of Guthrie that hangs above the stage, along with a three-canvas-panel Oklahoma landscape. The Woody Lutken most resembles is the cowboy from Toy Story voiced by Tom Hanks, a similarity I found only a little bit distracting. But he’s an affable presence even when shilling briefly for the CDs on sale in the lobby, and the other three singers and players—melancholy-voiced Darcie Deaville, Helen Russell, and David Finch—offer more than capable support. Finch, who’ll be replaced by Andy Teirstein later in the run, plays a spoon solo that earned a spontaneous ovation the night I went. If percussion-by-dining utensil doesn’t sound like your particular bowl of dust, you are advised to keep your distance; I had a splendid time. If the evening never quite shakes the over-reverent feeling of a cover-band concert, that’s problem endemic to biomusicals. This one is a lot better than most.

DC Metro Theatre Arts

Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie, a hit from last season in The West End and the Edinburgh Fringe in 2007, has been transplanted to Theater J with the same West End cast and design, and again directed with passion by Nick Corley.

This journey through the life and times of one of America’s greatest folk singers – Woody Guthrie – is told mostly though Woody’s life, writings, and songs, and is performed by a multi-talented cast of actors, singers, and musicians – Darcie Deaville, David M. Lutken, Helen Russell, and David Finch – who play multiple roles and instruments. (Andy Teirstein will replace David Finch starting November 20th until the production closes).

In its jam-packed 95 minutes, we are introduced to 30 of Woody Guthrie’s songs. Guthrie wrote over 1,500 songs; many were political, some were the blues, and he even composed numerous children’s songs. And we get a taste of the vast Guthrie repertoire in this toe-tapping, heart-breaking, entertaining, joyful, and invigorating production.

Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie’ covers Woody’s life from his birth in 1912 until his final days in 1967. It’s a feast of Guthrie’s well-known and not-so-well-known songs interspersed with monologues about Guthrie’s difficult life – suffering through the Depression, watching his mother suffer from Huntington’s DIsease (the same genetic neurological disorder that claimed his life at 55), surviving during the horrible Blacklisting of the 1950s, enduring so many personal tragedies, his work for the unions, his influence on his own children  - Arlo and Nora (who keep his legacy alive today) – and a whole generation of folk singers like The Weavers, Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary.

To warm up the audience, the cast played a couple of tunes before the show and  played afterwards, and then in the lobby there was a bit of a jam. They plan to have a jam session after the show on Sunday evenings. And everyone is invited to bring their instruments to join in with the cast.

Luke Hegel-Cantarella’s simple and visually appealing set design includes a landscape background and wonderful pictures and paintings of Woody Guthrie. The Goldman Theatre’s stage has a rustic feel to it. Jeffrey Meek provides the simple and time-appropriate costumes.

David M. Lutken plays Woody Guthrie and the narrator of the story. He is passionate and displays solid guitar talents and a pleasant singing voice. His solo highlights include the first version of “This Land is Your Land,” “Dust Storm Disaster,” and “I Ain’t Got No Home.”

David Finch plays various supporting characters that range from old friends, radio hosts, side musicians, and even the legendary Pete Seeger. He is a gifted actor and shows his musical versatility playing the jaw harp, guitar, and singing in the show. His solo performance of “Talkin’ Dust Bowl” was fantastic. The songs “I Ride an Old Paint” and “Vigilante Man” show off the chemistry between Lutken and Finch.

Darcie Deaville plays some minor roles, but she really shines as a driver from the family that gives Woody a ride to a migrant farm in California. She also is a fabulous singer and is a fantastic fiddler and guitarist. Her performances of “The Ballad of Tom Joad” and “Talking Merchant Marine” were highlights.

Helen Russell plays most of the female roles in the show, but it’s her performance as Woody’s mother that tugs at the heart, especially in the second act  after she had died – when Woody speaks to her when his own health starts to fail. Russell is a fine singer and also displays her musical talents on the standup bass, the ukulele, and the guitar. Her duets with Deaville on “Internationale,” “Columbus Stockade,” and “Union Maid” are beautiful and powerful.

Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie is filled with great music and performances. During these tough economic times and unpleasant political climate, Guthrie’s songs are even more meaningful and timeless. Bring the kids and grand kids because it’s the perfect time to introduce a new generation to the genius of Woody Guthrie. And if you like folk music Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie is a Must-See!

DC Theatre Scene

Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie
November 14, 2012 By Travis Andrews 1 Comment

Joy comes from a number of places. Nostalgia, while not joyful in and of itself, can bring a certain quiet excitement. Especially for a time long removed, a time before cell phones, before constant Internet access, before 24-hour news cycles. A time when people hitchhiked around the country and made ends meet by picking apricots at orchards they found along the way. Or perhaps peaches. Perhaps apples. For those living in this time, joyful moments were few and far between — this is not how most people want to live. But for those inundated by small boxy screens and glowing lights, it can seem almost divine.

Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie marries these two worlds for an hour and a half, as writer and star David M. Lutken brings his audience along the life of famed folk musician Woody Guthrie.

Guthrie, an Oklahoma native best known for “This Land is Your Land” and for being one of Bob Dylan’s biggest inspirations, came up during the Great Depression and traveled around the country, sympathizing with unions and singing story-songs about their plights. Lutken offers a full biopic, from six-year-old Guthrie learning to play guitar to an early grave.

Theater J’s stage is set sparsely: merely an unchanging backdrop depicting a dying crop field and a few photos of Guthrie. Instruments litter the stage, everything from acoustic guitars to upright bass. And before the play begins, Lutken, Darcie Deaville, David Finch and Helen Russell — the entire cast — are casually hanging out, playing a few tunes and setting the stage for an informal evening.

The play (though I hesitate to call it a play as it feels more like a concert) follows a simple but effective structure. The four, in varying arrangements, play thirty-two songs and/or single verses from songs. In between each, Lutken, playing Guthrie throughout, offers narration about the next step in Guthrie’s life. The crew then plays a song exemplifying that time. Between songs, the other three castmembers play varying roles.

We’re treated to some of the finest folk music that’s likely to be found in the area. Lutken offers a pitch-perfect Guthrie impression, even while narrating. He can jig with the best of them, and his feet are often dancing about wildly as he plays the acoustic guitar he keeps strapped around him.

The narration is informal, mostly Lutken simply telling the audience (in Guthrie’s voice) what happens next. It’s not dramatized by any means, but that fits with Guthrie’s own philosophy. No bells and whistles, just the truth.

Finch, who will be replaced on Nov. 20, shows an incredibly diverse range of skills, playing everything (with breathtaking precision) from his favored banjo, to the fiddle to some silverware (though I won’t ruin that particular surprise).

Russell, in an old floor-length dress, seems most at home on her upright bass, and Deaville, wearing the same, offers a complementary female vocal counterpart to Lutken’s Guthrie.

As the four tear through song after song, from “Gypsy Davey” to “Jackhammer John” to “Talkin’ Dust Bowl,” Guthrie’s life and career begin to unfold.

We see his mother slowly lose her mind to the hereditary Huntington’s Disease that eventually takes Guthrie’s own life. We see him lose a sister and later a daughter in two different fires. We see him lose a wife and a first family to his wanderlust, and we see him earn a job at a leftist paper in Los Angeles. We see him sleeping outdoors, hitchhiking across the country and finding himself as an angrier and angrier malcontent.

Yet, it’s a joyful play. While the audience sings along to popular tunes like “This Train is Bound for Glory,” the recurring reprise, there isn’t a tear in the room. Which is, after all, the gift of music. It’s the gift Guthrie wanted to give.

It should be noted this is very much a play for lovers of folk music. About 90 percent of it involves listening to four musicians having fun playing that particular genre.

Every Sunday following the play, the cast will hold a small gathering in the Jewish Community Center, where the theatre is located. Here, they’ll play songs by request and invite anyone and everyone to bring along their own instruments to join the fun. This music’s for everybody.

Just as Woody would have wanted.