Friday, September 20, 2013

Woody Sez, the Life and Music of Woody Guthrie, Cleveland Play House

(David M. Lutken as Woody Guthrie)

If a combination of folk music and liberal politics (remember those?) sounds perfect for you, then you best hustle down to see Wooody Sez at the Cleveland Play House.

While the production is unsatisfying in some respects—acting being one of the primary shortcomings—the four talented musicians display a range of songs that have the potential to amuse, enlighten and even shock.

In a linear and dutiful manner the show tells the story of Woody Guthrie, the iconic songwriter and performer known for penning classic songs such as “This Land Is Your Land.” Finding his true voice during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, Guthrie sang and composed songs that fought for the rights and the pride of the common men and women who are often trampled by society.

The piece is devised by David M. Lutken (with director Nick Corley and others) who also plays Guthrie and triples as the music director. In his Woody persona, Lutken has a comfortably rumpled down-home style of delivery that works well for the most part. And when he slows down to present a powerful song, such as “Dust Bowl Disaster,” you can feel the dirt and sand creeping into your pores.

The other three musician/actors are all fine as they smile a lot and expertly play a variety of instruments from fiddles and guitars to a dulcimer and a couple soup spoons. And the songs, from the lovely "Pastures of Plenty" to the rollicking "Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done,"are often thoroughly entertaining. But Helen Jean Russell, David Finch and Leenya Rideout never succeed in creating memorable minor characters who interact with Guthrie.

This throws all the responsibility onto Lutken, who manages to charm the audience for most of the show. Of course, the script suffers from the same old problem of many such musical bios: in trying to cover all the Wikipedia high points, it never takes the time to explore its subject in any depth.

And there is a lot of depth to be had, since Guthrie lived through many challenges including service in World War II and his family history of Huntington’s disease.

Absent a more penetrating perspective, we are left with a pleasant and well-executed raft of songs, which makes for a fine folk music concert. But as a theatrical piece Woody Sez doesn’t say nearly enough.

Woody Sez, the Life and Music of Woody Guthrie
Through October 6 at the Cleveland Play House, Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000

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