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

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.

Woody Sez is at Theater J through December 2. Running time is one hour and 45 minutes with one intermission. Tickets ($25 to $60) are available via Theater J’s website.