Woody Sez: This Play is Bound for Glory

By Amy J. Barry

Are the performers musicians first and actors second or the other way around in Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie at Hartford’s Theaterworks? And does it really matter? The music and dialogue is so beautifully synthesized that it’s hard to believe there are 35 tunes as they’re so subtly integrated into the show, unlike so many musical revues that are little more than a long list of songs with the storyline an appendage.

David M. Lutken plays Woody Guthrie (1912-1967), a major figure in the folk music movement and an outspoken social/political activist, who inspired such contemporary musical greats as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Jerry Garcia, to name a few.

Lutken is terrific in the lead role, which is no surprise as he’s had a lot of practice playing the part since its 2007 debut in Edinburgh, Scotland. He also plays the show’s narrator, is one of its creators -- along with director Nick Corley -- and its musical director.

In addition to his many theatrical credits, Lutken has performed at Carnegie Hall, New York City Opera (as a balladeer in Paul Bunyan), and at the 92nd Street Y as principal banjoist with the Baton Rouge Symphony. Physically well suited to the role, he is tall and lanky like Guthrie, and has the cadence of the folk hero’s voice down pat.

David Finch, Leenya Rideout, and Helen Russell join Lutken in multiple roles and on multiple stringed instruments. Finch and Rideout have appeared in regional productions of Woody Sez and Russell is a member of the original cast and creative team. All three are accomplished musicians and their familiarity and comfort with their characters is evident.

The play starts out at the height of Guthrie’s career, performing on a radio show. He agrees to sing “appropriate,” non anti-patriotic songs and starts with “God Bless America” but quickly switches it up to “This Land is Your Land,” his most famous song, setting the tone for the rest of the musical and establishing his rebellious personality.

The action then goes back in time to Guthrie’s early years in Oklahoma and proceeds up to his death, giving us insight into how he was shaped by both his family and society.

We learn that his mother suffered from serious mental illness and it is painfully revealed that she probably set the fires that burned down their house and took the lives of Guthrie’s sister and father. She ended up in an asylum and died of Huntington’s Corea, a progressive genetic neurological disorder. Russell chillingly plays Guthrie’s mother -- the only substantial secondary role in the show.

Escaping his depressing family situation puts Guthrie on the road at 16, performing all over the country. But all is not depressing. There are many moments when Lutken expresses Guthrie’s ironic sense of humor, despite all his hardships, like when he sings “So long, it’s been good to know you” to “all those Republicans” and poses the rhetorical question “You know who an artist is? Someone who’s been out of work so long they found another line of work.”

Guthrie was born during World War I, lived through The Great Depression, World War II, and the Korean War, and died during the Vietnam War -- and we see how these huge events impacted his life.

Particularly relevant to today are such scenes as migrant workers leaving the Dustbowl for work picking fruit in California. Told the fruit isn’t ready to pick they’re given store credit instead and forced into debt. This inspired the song, “I Ain’t Got No Home,” with the lyrics, “I’m looking for a job with honest pay and I ain’t gonna be treated this way.”

“California,” comments Woody, “is the most beautiful place you can find to starve in.”

When World War II breaks out Woody “sez,” “A kid is a kid and a bomb is a bomb,” which hits really close to home right now with the loss of innocent lives in the Middle East.

We learn little about Guthrie’s marriages except that he tied the knot three times, and that folk musician Arlo Guthrie was among the eight children he fathered.

His daughter eerily dies in a freak electric fire, and he tragically starts having symptoms of Huntington’s disease, which he ended up dying of at only 54.

“And the things that you fear can truly come upon you,” he says.

Among the show’s strongest numbers is “This Train is Bound for Glory,” performed by the ensemble that like a train, energetically chugs along.

There is nothing exceptional about the set by Luke Hegel-Cantarella or costumes by Jeffrey Meek—neither changes in the two-act, one intermission show. Perhaps it’s to keep the focus on the performances, but some variation would enhance the production.

Continuing the fun, a Hootenanny featuring the cast will be held at the theater every Sunday through the run of the show starting at 4:45 p.m. There is no charge and show attendance is not required. All instruments are welcome and walk-ups are encouraged. In addition, an exhibit of vintage stringed instruments is on display in the Theaterworks gallery.

Woody Sez is extended through Sept. 21 at Theaterworks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. Call 860-527-7838 for tickets or online at www.theaterworkshartford.org.

This review appears in Shore Publishing community weeklies, and online at zip06.com and theday.com.

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