“Sing O muse,” Woody Sez: Then Life and Music of Woody Guthrie begins. This Homeric tale of iconic folk singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie (David Lutken) at DC’s Theatre J is a spirited, but often melancholy musical that tells the story of this folk musician’s meandering journey through life.
You remember something about music you almost forgot—it’s a way to tell stories.
While the show is peppered generously with nostalgic renditions of Guthrie’s songs, “This Train is Bound for Glory” opens the show as a group number. It is reprised later, painting a picture of Woody as a self-sacrificing, feisty spokesman for people fallen on hard times. He is an outspoken, opinionated figure, unwilling to be reined in by radio station owners, but also a sad soul and a fun-loving jokester.
From Okimah, Oklahoma to Pampa, Texas to the west coast and east to New York City where Guthrie died recording music and mentoring young musicians, this heartwarming, heart-wrenching odyssey weaves and winds just as Guthrie’s life did, looking for work, a place to call home, and ultimately to give a voice to people he met along the way. It takes the audience through the heartland of America, to California, to the Library of Congress and then overseas as Woody is called to duty in Europe and North Africa during World War II.
Woody Sez is essentially a one-man show accompanied by the other players: Helen Jean Russell, David Finch and Leenya Rideout. The cast plays a simple, rag tag group of musicians, each taking on slightly varied characters throughout the show. Russell plays Woody’s mother, a chronically unwell woman left by her husband in “Gypsy Davey.” After being moved to an asylum, she succumbs to Huntington’s disease, a hereditary neurological illness that eventually also takes Woody’s life in 1967. Rideout’s haunting voice harks back to the Irish roots inherent in American folk music.
This show’s Guthrie is a righteous soul, using music and the road to expose injustices. The music is his mission—to discover wrongs and pressure authorities to make them right.
Lutken carries the show through to the very end, leading the audience in toe-tapping sing-alongs and drawing tears with melancholy ballads, a performance for which he won a Helen Hayes Award in 2013. He tells Woody’s story in first person, playing his famous guitar labeled “This Machine Kills Fascists.” Under direction from Nick Corley, who also co-wrote the show, Lutken plays and sings almost non-stop, illustrating personal tragedies, being on the road, natural disasters, war, the Dust Bowl, and the characters he met along the way.
The set, a static one made up of stools, stringed musical instruments, and old photos of Guthrie against plainsy backdrops is awash in sepia tones, playing up the nostalgic nature of Guthrie’s music.
The real beauty of the Woody Sez experience though, is the way it gives context to the down-home old-timey music that Guthrie spent his life making. You remember something about music you almost forgot—it’s a way to tell stories. Woody Sez uses Guthrie’s songs to tell stories of wandering workers looking for a home in “I Ride An Old Paint, of Dust Bowl survivors in “Dust Storm Disaster,” of a woman beaten on a picket line in “Union Maid,” of company vigilantes sent out to terrorize workers in “Vigilante Man,” of World War II in “Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done.” He even pokes fun at politicians in the lively company number “So Long It’s Been Good to Know Yuh.”
Woody Sez is well worth the trip, and takes you on one of your own. Some nights the company has a post-show party, affectionately called a “hootenanny” in the hall below, and encourage audience members to bring instruments and participate.
Running Time: Two hours with one 15 minute intermission.
Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie plays through December 14 at Theatre J, 1529 16th Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 518-9400, or purchase them online.