“Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie,” running through January 20th at the Westport Country Playhouse, is a jukebox musical that has far stronger theatrical depth than most. The show brings poignantly to life a figure that many, especially younger viewers, may only know through “This Land is Your Land”—written as a rousing protest song that has since become a sweet anthem, with the bitter fourth, fifth, and sixth verses almost always excised. “Woody Sez” includes these verses, and though the show could still use a bit more edge, we come away with a dark enough sense of the Great Depression and of the man who turned music into a weapon with which to fight, always, for the underdog.
David M. Lutken and Nick Corley co-devised the show, with Corley directing and Lutken playing Guthrie. “Woody Sez,” created ten years ago, has toured all over the world with different casts surrounding Lutken; here, he is joined by three astonishing actor/musicians: Katie Barton, David Finch, and Leenya Rideout, all of whom play numerous instruments (bass, guitar, banjo, mandolin, harmonica, and dulcimer, among them) and numerous characters with remarkable skill and enthusiasm.
From the beginning, personal tragedy shattered Guthrie’s life: his mother (a haunting Barton) showed signs of Huntington’s disease when Guthrie was a child, and by the time he was fourteen, she was institutionalized. Guthrie married young with little education, and he soon left his wife and three children to travel to California with the displaced farmers and laborers, hoping to find work and, more importantly, success with his music. He concurrently found politics, including Communism, which he championed. Theatrically, the first act is strongest in a section called “Dust Bowl Disaster,” and in its use of “The Ballad of Tom Joad” as a recurring theme.
By the second act, we see a sticker on Guthrie’s guitar that reads, “This Machine Kills Fascists,” and we learn, through numerous songs, about Guthrie’s WWII years in the Merchant Marines and, upon his return to the U.S., his fight for unionization. We also hear about the next tragedy in his life, which followed his second marriage and the birth of his especially beloved daughter, Cathy, played by a winning Rideout (who also plays a mean fiddle). Among this act’s most powerful numbers are “Vigilante Man,” “I Ain’t Got No Home,” and especially “Deportee,” which resonates, tragically, with our own time.
Among personal biography, professional struggles and successes, numerous songs, and powerful social history, “Woody Sez” has a great deal to cover. The show loses focus a few times, but when it snaps back to energetic life, we are quick to forgive. In the same sense, Lutken brings so much joy, warmth, and sweetness to the role that Guthrie as the angry protester, whose rage on behalf of the downtrodden fueled much of his music, gets somewhat submerged. Guthrie certainly had a sense of humor, and he wrote an entire album for children. Yet aside from a humorous and glancing mention of drinking, his alcoholism goes unmentioned, and Lutken’s strong voice has no trace of Guthrie’s rough, nasal tone. A cigarette dangles from Guthrie’s mouth in nearly every published photograph, and even adding such a detail would help Lutken portray more of the man’s harsh, rugged side.
However, Lutken’s connection with the audience and his nuanced acting mostly eclipse this tendency to soften, and he and Corley have created an ambitious and rousing portrait. If Guthrie wore on his guitar that sticker, “This Machine Kills Fascists,” he also famously wrote, “Take it easy—but take it!” “Woody Sez” bases its tone on the latter phrase, and the show takes us on a rousing and moving journey.
“Woody Sez” is in a limited run at Westport Country Playhouse through January 20. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.