Stirring ‘Woody Sez’ was made for you and me
By Hedy Weiss Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org September 25, 2012 12:02PM
David Finch (from left), David Lutken, Helen Jean Russell and Darcie Deaville star in “Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie" at Northlight Theatre.
The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie’
When: Through Oct. 21
Where: Northlight Theatre, 9501 N. Skokie Blvd., Skokie
Updated: October 27, 2012 6:06AM
The Great Depression of the 1930s, exacerbated by the devastating dust storms that hit the American prairie and sent farmers and others trekking to the far-from-welcoming fields of California, stirred such artists as novelist John Steinbeck, playwright Clifford Odets and photographer Dorothea Lange to create some of their finest work.
Of course, if you had to name the man who supplied the most memorable “soundtrack” to that era it would be Woody Guthrie, the balladeer and folk musician who was born a century ago in Oklahoma. A tragedy-streaked rambling soul, he hopped the rails and hitched endless rides through the worst of the Depression. He sang for the union movement, moved on to join the merchant marine during World War II and made it through the blacklisting era of the 1950s. And, before he died in 1967, at the age of 55 (a victim of Huntington’s disease, a progressive genetic neurological disorder), he became something of a godfather for a new generation of folk musicians including Bob Dylan. Married three times, he fathered eight children, including folk musician Arlo Guthrie and his sister, Nora, keeper of the Guthrie legacy.
All this and more is woven into “Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie,” the stirring revue originally produced at the 2007 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, mounted in London’s West End last year, and currently touring in connection with the Guthrie centennial. Devised by David M. Lutken, along with director Nick Corley, Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell and Andy Teirstein, it is now onstage at Northlight Theatre, where Lutken — a lanky, graceful actor-singer with virtuosic musical skills — is the Guthrie stand-in and narrator of sorts. He is richly backed by Deaville (a fiddler and master mandolin player), Russell (the singer and instrumentalist who often suggests the haunting spirit of Guthrie’s mother), and David Finch, a sparkling personality who can sing and play superbly on a slew of instruments from strings, to harmonica and spoons.
Roughly chronological in its structure, the 95-minute show features about two dozen songs from what Lutken reminds us is an archive of about 1,500 Guthrie-penned tunes that range from the political (not surprisingly, “the 47 percenters” in the audience will feel wonderfully well-represented), to children’s songs (“Riding in My Car”). Along the way there are with a few emblematic traditional numbers, including blues and the “Internationale.”
The litany of personal tragedies that seemed to trail Guthrie (incinerating fires, madness, child deaths) are duly conjured. But it is the greedy bankers, company store exploiters and union-busters so often encountered by the poor, dispossessed and work-starved that are the subject of most of the songs. And frequently (as in “Jolly Banker” or “Do Re Mi” or “Union Maid”), there is a deceptively jaunty melody paired with outrage, sarcasm and defiance.
The rousing “Pastures of Plenty” and “Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done” are countered by the plaintive “Curly Headed Baby” and “I Ain’t Got No Home.” The nameless dead of war are remembered in “Sinking of the Reuben James.” “Jackhammer John” and “Oklahoma Hills” may be upbeat, but the catastrophic chronicles of “Talkin’ Dust Bowl” and “Dust Storm Disaster,” which give us Guthrie as the gifted musical journalist, spare us nothing.
“Woody Sez” is many magnitudes more polished and theatrical than the usual open-mike, folk-music party referred to as a “hootenanny.” But this Guthrie homage calls to mind the origin of that word as a handy catch-all term for a thing forgotten or unknown. Guthrie never forgot the frequently powerless people he met along the road. He captured their lives in song and reminded them that “This Land Is Your Land.”