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updated: 9/26/2012 3:10 PM

'Woody Sez' an endearing musical portrait of an American original

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  • David Finch, left, David M. Lutken, Helen J. Russell and Darcie Deaville make up the first-rate quartet of musician/actors starring in Northlight Theatre's "Woody Sez."

      David Finch, left, David M. Lutken, Helen J. Russell and Darcie Deaville make up the first-rate quartet of musician/actors starring in Northlight Theatre's "Woody Sez."
    courtesy of Northlight Theatre

  • Singer/guitarist David M. Lutken stars as the iconic American folk singer Woody Guthrie in the heartfelt bio-musical revue "Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie," running through Oct. 21 at Northlight Theatre.

      Singer/guitarist David M. Lutken stars as the iconic American folk singer Woody Guthrie in the heartfelt bio-musical revue "Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie," running through Oct. 21 at Northlight Theatre.
    courtesy of Northlight Theatre.

  • Helen J. Russell plays Woody Guthrie's mother and David M. Lutken plays young Guthrie, the folk-music icon who learned to love music through her, in Northlight Theatre's production of the bio-musical "Woody Sez."

      Helen J. Russell plays Woody Guthrie's mother and David M. Lutken plays young Guthrie, the folk-music icon who learned to love music through her, in Northlight Theatre's production of the bio-musical "Woody Sez."
    courtesy of Northlight Theatre

  • Video: "Woody Sez"

  • Video: "Woody" promotional montage

 
 

"The only story I tried to write down is you."

Seminal folk artist Woody Guthrie utters those words in "Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie," the toe-tapping, heartstring-tugging bio-revue currently playing at Skokie's Northlight Theatre.

Indeed, long before the Occupy Movement introduced the term "99-percenter," their existence was chronicled with plain-spoken compassion by an Oklahoma troubadour whose music sparked a folk revival and inspired the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen.

From the 1930s through the 1950s, in songs like "The Ballad of Tom Joad," "Jackhammer John" and "Going Down That Road Feelin' Bad," Guthrie related hard-luck stories of American everymen and everywomen: farmers, laborers and factory workers impoverished by the Great Depression, displaced by dust storms, intimidated by union busters, and marginalized by bankers, politicians and other "1-percenters."

Just as they resonated with the Okies and unionists, Guthrie's evocative story songs still resonate today, as an increasing number of people facing layoffs and foreclosures find the American dream slipping from their hands.

Coming as it does during the centennial of Guthrie's birth and weeks before an election where the divide between the "haves" and "have-nots" has emerged as a central issue, the conventionally appealing "Woody Sez" is as entertaining as it is timely.

Conceived by David M. Lutken and director Nick Corley, who premiered the show at 2007's Edinburgh Fringe Festival, it takes its name from a column the left-leaning Guthrie wrote for the pro-Communist newspaper, The Daily Worker. Consisting of 30 songs by Guthrie, including the aforementioned "Tom Joad," which recurs throughout as a leitmotif for the man himself, the show offers a snapshot of the self-described hillbilly whose experiences traveling around the country during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl Era defined his brand of rural populism.

It opens with Guthrie -- affectionately conjured by the long-limbed Lutken, a talented musician and genial narrator -- defiantly singing the lesser-known (and more politically provocative) verses of "The Land is Your Land" on a 1940s radio broadcast and being ushered off the air for his efforts. Having established Guthrie's social conscience, the show dips back in time to recount, in chronological fashion, a mostly itinerant life touched by tragedy and informed by the voices of the voiceless who Guthrie encountered crisscrossing the country.

Along the way we learn about his youth spent with an increasingly erratic mother who was eventually institutionalized. We hear about his travels, the odd jobs he did when he wasn't playing music, the partnerships he formed, the women he married, the causes he championed, his stint in the Merchant Marines during World War II, his blacklisting during the McCarthy Era and his diagnosis with Huntington's disease, the hereditary genetic disorder that claimed his life in 1967 at age 55. All of this unfolds on a sparsely furnished stage that recalls rusted steel, and against a backdrop dominated by moody photographs of desolate plains.

Of course the show's greatest asset is its truly enjoyable score. Dominated by guitar, banjo, violin and bass and accented with mandolin, dulcimer, harmonica and spoons, it draws from folk, blues and bluegrass. The songs range from elegiac ballads (the haunting "Dust Storm Disaster" and the deeply resonant "I Ain't Got No Home") that depict in poignant detail dispossessed Americans, to propulsive, toe-tapping numbers like "Oklahoma Hills" and the cheeky "Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done" to rousing protest anthems like "Union Maid" and sharply satirical tunes like "Jolly Banker," which pair scathing lyrics with upbeat melodies to wonderful effect.

It's performed by a fine quartet whose homespun harmonies are frequently glorious. Ably lead by Lutken, it features fiddler Darcie Deaville, multi-instrumentalist David Finch and Helen J. Russell, who plays the upright bass and sings with plaintive lyricism beautifully suited to an era so memorably portrayed by one of America's favorite sons.

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