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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.

Darcie Deaville, Andy Teirstein, and Helen Russell in Woody Sez. Photograph by Wendy Mutz.

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

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.