Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie
If your idea of a fun Saturday night is popping a cold one and tuning the radio to "A Prairie Home Companion," then you should seriously consider getting out of the house for once. I don’t mean just for your own sanity, but for your own entertainment. Because right now, boy, does Theater J at the DC JCC have the show for you.
"Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie" is a tribute to the man alternately billed as ’’the people’s troubadour’’ and ’’the original folk hero,’’ who actually came to national fame via radio. He was also the original folksy hero, based on evidence from this show, co-devised - with director Nick Corley - and starring David M. Lutken as Guthrie. There are groan-inducing cracks and asides tossed off throughout the show. There were also a couple amusing references to the most recent elections and the progress of progressives, a helpful reminder that Guthrie - like Garrison Keillor today, now that I think about it - was a liberal.
Woody Sez, whose title and much of its book derive from a column Guthrie wrote for the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker in the lead up to World War II, paints a picture of a liberal hillbilly, one who never forgot the people or the music of his roots in dirt-poor Oklahoma. Lutken is joined by a strong cast of three singing string musicians who take on various roles, playing the key people in Guthrie’s life - and all on Luke Hegel-Cantarella’s basic barn-like, wood-floor stage. Sweet-voiced and mean-bass player Helen Jean Russell is the standout, especially for her touching portrayal as Guthrie’s mother, who was committed to an insane asylum when Guthrie was just a teenager. Nora Guthrie suffered dementia and eventually succumbed to Huntington’s disease - the same hereditary disease that would end her son’s life at age 55, just as Bob Dylan and other folk legends got hip to the man and his music.
And, oh, that music: the national staple ’’This Land Is Your Land,’’ of course, but also the gems ’’The Ballad of Tom Joad,’’ ’’Pastures of Plenty’’ and ’’Vigilante Man.’’ The Woody Sez quartet straps on 15 instruments in total to play through 30 Guthrie standards, none of them lasting more than a couple minutes. You might wish the folks would go on a tear and offer an improvisatory jam on the great ’’This Train Is Bound for Glory’’ - to say nothing of talking less, playing more - but that would be a show-off kind of move. And Guthrie was not a show-off kind of man, Lutken notes at one point. He simply played his songs until he got his story or point across.
All told, "Woody Sez" is a short and sweet show, running less than two hours, including a 15-minute intermission. That is, unless you join for ’’free hootenannies’’ after Sunday night performances, in which people off the street are invited to bring their stringed instruments and jam with the cast. Talk about a folksy feeling.
"Woody Sez" runs to Dec. 2 at Theater J. $35 to $65. 800-494-TIXS or theaterj.org for tickets.