David M. Lutken (playing the legendary Woody) devised, with Nick Corley, Darcie Deaville, Helen J. Russell, and Andy Teirstein, this show. It takes us back to the singer's childhood as he needed to scramble mightily to make money. By the age of six, in 1918, Woody was singing to help support the family. His mother, played by Helen J. Russell, sings "Curly Headed Baby" and we also hear a rendition, early on, of "Jack Hammer John." During his childhood, Woody's mother is sent to a state asylum and he must fend for himself.
The journey moves from Oklahoma to California and across the country to New York City. Guthrie was known to hop on a freight train car and, in a sense, it was often "So LongIt's Been Good to Know Yuh" via "This Train is Bound for Glory."
Toward the end of the first act, David Finch (banjo) and Leenya Rideout (mandolin) fuse voices on "Do Re Mi."
Lutken and director Corley have collaborated on Woody Sez since its origins; everyone in the cast has participated in one or more productions of the musical previous to the current engagement. Instruments include various guitars, mandolin, violins, dulcimer, banjo, harmonica, standing bass ... and more. Corley's key involves seamlessly moving individuals about the stage. This is accomplished with maximum fluency.
As the audience readies for the literal beginning of the performance, the actors come forward and begin to play the stringed instruments. Lutken explains that his is a warm-up. The truth is that this warms everyone up for what follows and is pre-show engagement at its very best.
Guthrie married three times and had a number of children. Perhaps it was he who was "Vigilante Man" and the play does not seek to portray Woody as a saint. Lutken notes, toward the conclusion, that Woody opposed commercialism, consumerism, and capitalism. He was, one infers, far from an ideal father and admitted to his yearning to hit the open road.
Unfortunately, he fell victim to Huntington's Disease and passed away at the age of 55. By then, twenty year old Arlo Guthrie had come to know his father. Since then, this now-famous singer has celebrated many of Woody's tunes.
Other highlight numbers include "The Ballad of Tom Joad," "Union Maid" and, naturally, a rousing, inclusive "This Land is Your Land." Along the way or, more appropriately, the meandering route, we are educated about Oklahoma and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, Woody's pro-Communist politics, his decision to fight Fascism during World War II, even his talent for writing a children's song such as "Take Me Riding in My Car."
Jeffrey Meek has the actors outfitted to portray styles of the 1930s and 1940s. Lutken wears a green rumpled, worn button-down shirt, Finch hat and suspenders; and the women period-appropriate dresses. Luke Hegel-Cantarella's scenic background bestows a dry scene, one with a multi-hued sunset.
There are mentions of Ledbelly and Pete Seeger but this performance is all about the man who sang "I ain't got no home." The quartet of singer/actors at TheaterWorks are actors who are individually adept and, when singing together, forge lovely harmonies. Aside from Lutken, actors play many roles of those who interacted with Guthrie. TheaterWorks and the cast is encouraging people to join in Sunday post-matinee hootenannies in the upstairs lobby. This perfectly exemplifies the tone of the enlivening and enlightening presentation.
Woody Sez continues at TheaterWorks in Hartford through September 21st, 2014, an extended run. For tickets, call (860) 527-7838 or visit www.theaterworkshartford.org.
- Fred Sokol