‘Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie’ at Theater J by Mike Spain

Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie, a hit from last season in The West End and the Edinburgh Fringe in 2007, has been transplanted to Theater J with the same West End cast and design, and again directed with passion by Nick Corley.

This journey through the life and times of one of America’s greatest folk singers – Woody Guthrie – is told mostly though Woody’s life, writings, and songs, and is performed by a multi-talented cast of actors, singers, and musicians – Darcie Deaville, David M. Lutken, Helen Russell, and David Finch – who play multiple roles and instruments. (Andy Teirstein will replace David Finch starting November 20th until the production closes).

In its jam-packed 95 minutes, we are introduced to 30 of Woody Guthrie’s songs. Guthrie wrote over 1,500 songs; many were political, some were the blues, and he even composed numerous children’s songs. And we get a taste of the vast Guthrie repertoire in this toe-tapping, heart-breaking, entertaining, joyful, and invigorating production.

Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie’ covers Woody’s life from his birth in 1912 until his final days in 1967. It’s a feast of Guthrie’s well-known and not-so-well-known songs interspersed with monologues about Guthrie’s difficult life – suffering through the Depression, watching his mother suffer from Huntington’s DIsease (the same genetic neurological disorder that claimed his life at 55), surviving during the horrible Blacklisting of the 1950s, enduring so many personal tragedies, his work for the unions, his influence on his own children  – Arlo and Nora (who keep his legacy alive today) – and a whole generation of folk singers like The Weavers, Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary.

To warm up the audience, the cast played a couple of tunes before the show and  played afterwards, and then in the lobby there was a bit of a jam. They plan to have a jam session after the show on Sunday evenings. And everyone is invited to bring their instruments to join in with the cast.

Luke Hegel-Cantarella’s simple and visually appealing set design includes a landscape background and wonderful pictures and paintings of Woody Guthrie. The Goldman Theatre’s stage has a rustic feel to it. Jeffrey Meek provides the simple and time-appropriate costumes.

David M. Lutken plays Woody Guthrie and the narrator of the story. He is passionate and displays solid guitar talents and a pleasant singing voice. His solo highlights include the first version of “This Land is Your Land,” “Dust Storm Disaster,” and “I Ain’t Got No Home.”

David Finch plays various supporting characters that range from old friends, radio hosts, side musicians, and even the legendary Pete Seeger. He is a gifted actor and shows his musical versatility playing the jaw harp, guitar, and singing in the show. His solo performance of “Talkin’ Dust Bowl” was fantastic. The songs “I Ride an Old Paint” and “Vigilante Man” show off the chemistry between Lutken and Finch.

Darcie Deaville plays some minor roles, but she really shines as a driver from the family that gives Woody a ride to a migrant farm in California. She also is a fabulous singer and is a fantastic fiddler and guitarist. Her performances of “The Ballad of Tom Joad” and “Talking Merchant Marine” were highlights.

Helen Russell plays most of the female roles in the show, but it’s her performance as Woody’s mother that tugs at the heart, especially in the second act  after she had died – when Woody speaks to her when his own health starts to fail. Russell is a fine singer and also displays her musical talents on the standup bass, the ukulele, and the guitar. Her duets with Deaville on “Internationale,” “Columbus Stockade,” and “Union Maid” are beautiful and powerful.

Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie is filled with great music and performances. During these tough economic times and unpleasant political climate, Guthrie’s songs are even more meaningful and timeless. Bring the kids and grand kids because it’s the perfect time to introduce a new generation to the genius of Woody Guthrie. And if you like folk music Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie is a Must-See!

Running time:Approximately two hours with one 15 minute intermission

David Finch, David M. Lutken, Helen Jean Russell, and Darcie Deaville. Photo by Wendy Murtz.

Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie plays through December 2, 2012 at Theater J – at The Washington DC Jewish Community Center (DCJCC) – 1529 16th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (800) 494-8497, or purchase them online.

Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie website.



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