Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie, which was originally produced as part of the 2007 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, isn't the kind of production we usually see at Washington, DC's Theater J, which seemingly has an endless supply of well-acted, thought-provoking, engaging plays aimed at raising social and political consciousness. This isn't to say, of course, that this special event doesn't fit in the Theater J season – it does. Woody Guthrie, an American folk music treasure, thrived on writing and performing songs, which conveyed important socio-political messages to his contemporaries even if that meant going against the establishment and, in many cases, aggravating those in power. The socio-political bent of Woody's songs is certainly not lost in Woody Sez, created by musical director/cast member David M. Lutken with director Nick Corley, and cast members Darcie Deaville, Helen (Jean) Russell, and Andy Teirstein (who will join the production on November 20).
More concert than play, Woody Sez is nostalgic, simple, and generally authentic. Lutken, Deaville, Russell, and David Finch (performing through November 18) have remarkable musical talents and give Theater J audiences a taste of over 30 songs that Woody wrote and performed during his career as an American folk musician. At the same time (but to a lesser extent), audiences learn more about the man behind the music. The touches of dialogue, in which snippets of Woody's rather unfortunate yet inspiring life (which ended far too soon as he succumbed to Huntington's disease) are recalled, can border on being schmaltzy and too forced at times. However, when the songs are the focus – which is more often than not – it's hard not be impressed by Woody's gift for words and ideas and the care the small cast has taken in performing his music.
Some, including myself, might find this production to be a bit too one-note, musically. Lutken and the others do well to pack a considerable number of Woody's creations into the production, including the better known ones like "This Train is Bound for Glory" and "This Land is Your Land," which can give even the person who knows the least about Woody a sense of the kind of songs he wrote. This strength is also a weakness. Though lyrically diverse, Woody's actual music compositions aren't that diverse. After some time, given the number of songs included, many of the songs started to sound the same to me though I was mostly able to put that feeling aside due to the rich lyrics. Folk music aficionados are probably more likely to appreciate both elements equally.
Backed by a folksy, down-home set designed by Luke Hegel-Cantarella, all of the singer-musician cast members contribute well to the ultimate success of this piece. They are the primary reason this show is recommended. They come off the best when performing in the ensemble numbers (with "This Train is Bound for Glory," and "Sinking of the Reuben James" as highlights), but each of them have unique gifts which make them stand out as individuals.
As the lead, David M. Lutken embodies Woody's simple performing style and demonstrates a nice, natural rapport with his fellow musicians and the audience. His guitar skills are commendable and his strong voice suits the material well. He has the most material to perform in the show and makes every moment count.
Darcie Deaville had some vocal struggles in the performance I witnessed with more than several songs being sung flat, but her incredible ability to internalize and organically convey the emotional intent of each song made it easier to forget those technical issues. She is certainly a stellar instrumentalist who is equally comfortable with every stringed instrument she is tasked to play. Helen (Jean) Russell is a joy to watch on stage throughout the show, but her performance soars to the skies when she is playing the bass while singing. Like Deaville, her proficiency with an array of stringed instruments is noteworthy; her clear and strong voice is also an asset.