All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Musical instruments, especially strings, bowable, pluckable, and strummable, have been burgeoning on local stages. Actors, local and visiting, are proving to be quadruple threats, able to sing, dance, act, and fiddle. Unless, of course, they play the sax or percussion to provide some variety. This musical outpouring is downright exhilarating.
The cast of “Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie, devised the show in addition to performing in it. They were aware of their musical gifts, vocal and instrumental, when they set about their work, and to a person, they show their skill with a tune and the joy they derive from the lively folk material they play as they celebrate the life of Woody Guthrie and talk about the lore, and lure, of the land, yours and mine, he traveled.
For fun and versatility, one need go no further than chief interlocutor and Guthrie surrogate David M. Lutken. Tall , trim, and loose-limbed, Lutken sings with clarity and conviction, plays the guitar as if his hands are required to move at several miles a minute, and dances with the rubber-legged lightness of Dick Van Dyke. Lutken can spin a yarn, elicit your sympathy or empathy, and present a song engagingly. Best of all, he can talk sincerely about the issues and leftish politics that motivated Woody Guthrie while never becoming preachy, self-righteous, or offensive to anyone who may have a different point of view.
“Woody Sez” is an easygoing, congenial show that broadly covers a lot of subjects and illuminates a seminal entertainer’s life by showing how Guthrie became interested in the indigenous music of people and cultures and how his penchant for collecting local songs led to a care about how comfortably and freely people lived. Born in Oklahoma in 1912, Guthrie witnessed the dust storms that parched and wipe out acres of once-arable farmland and drove a young state’s natives to seek work and sustenance in California. Guthrie’s experiences parallel those chronicled by John Steinbeck in “The Grapes of Wrath,” and a leitmotif of “Woody Sez” is “The Ballad of Tom Joad.”
Guthrie’s world was wider than Tom Joad’s, and he found a lot more company than Steinbeck’s protagonist, but “Woody Sez” gives you the sense that if a human was in trouble or having his rights trampled on, Guthrie would be there.
Lutken tells Guthrie’s life story gently with the help of his castmates and fellow musicians and script collaborators, Helen J. Russell Darcie Deaville, and Andy Teirstein. You become aware of everything from the events that influenced Guthrie to the havoc fire caused in his life and the hereditary disease, Huntington’s chorea, that would affect his mother and eventually claim him. The show makes only one mention of Arlo Guthrie, who would follow his father to folk music fame and whose greatest success came after Woody succumbed to Huntington’s.
The “Woody Sez” troupe goes about its business with graciousness and modesty. Their show is as simply honest and coolly natural as their homespun garments and acoustic instruments. There no sign of rush or fuss. All proceeds at a comfortable, friendly pace. And all entertains.
Good music abounds. Lutken, Russell, Deaville, and Teirstein are adept with a variety of instruments ranging from bass fiddle to Jew’s harp. Their songs, beautifully harmonized, invite you to listen and to join in singing. Familiar tunes like, “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh,” “This Train is Bound for Glory,” and “This Land is Your Land” combine nicely with some pointed tunes like “Jolly Banker” and “Why Do You Stand There in the Rain?” to create a thorough view of Guthrie’s music and interests. Midway through the show, about the time Guthrie joins the merchant marine and does some fighting in World War II, Lutken slaps a sticker on his guitar that says, “This machine kills fascists.” Guthrie may have seen himself as a genuine folk song army, as opposed to the one Tom Lehrer pokes fun at in his song about activists. He certainly took a stand against broadcasters who censored his songs because of political content and bureaucrats, Republican and Democrat, who made laws that hurt people or made the well-meaning into criminals.
Emotions are never strained in “Woody Sez.” Woody talks openly about being too much of a rambler and womanizer to be a particularly good husband or father, and politics can be of a wobbly variety, but all is kept tame and straightforward so little causes a strong reaction. Guthrie may have wanted his words to have a farther reaching effect, but Lutken and company are right to keep things light and on a pleasant, non-confrontational keel.
“Woody Sez” lets hear you a good story about a unique man’s life while giving you a lot of finely performed music to enjoy.
The “Woody Sez” cast will conduct a hootenanny in the People’s Light & Theatre Company lobby at 9:30 p.m. each Thursday it’s in Malvern. Their working together seems like a hootenanny of sorts, a country jam that lets happy, contented people share their prodigious ability with a People’s Light audience that laps up the good spirit and humanitarian drive of Guthrie’s tunes.
Deaville and Russell have lovely voices that ring in magnificent harmony. Teirstein is a fine musician and a subtle comedian who adds levity to the show.
At least four different kinds of guitars must be played, along with a banjo, mandolin, autoharp, harmonica, bass, violin, and Jew’s harp. Feet stamp and hands clap when the rhythm demands it. All is performed with such ease and assurance, you just love being in the company of and being entertained by the “Woody Sez” ensemble.
The costumes that look like they came from the performers’ wardrobes are by Jeffrey Meek. Nick Corley directed the show.
“Woody Sez” is the second consecutive production that featured visiting actors rather folks from People’s Light’s regular troupe. PLT’s next season is dedicated to showing off its fine players. Next up is “Bach in Leipzig” in July.
“Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie” runs through Sunday, May 25 at People’s Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road (Route 401 just north of Route 30), in Malvern, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. David Finch replaces Andy Teirstein the week of May 21. Tickets range from $46 to $26 and can be obtained by calling 610-644-3500 or going online to www.peopleslight.org.