Director Nick Corley lets the music speak for itself in Theater J’s production ofWoody Sez, a story about famed American folk musician Woody Guthrie. There is simple but effective set design (Dust Bowl landscapes and pictures of Woody Guthrie) by Scenic Designer Luke Hegel-Cantarella, lighting by Garth Dolan, and costumes by Jeffrey Meek. There are no microphones or amps, just acoustic instruments – and lots of them. With no less than 15 string instruments on stage helping to create the set, the atmosphere is both simple and yet deeply impressive. A tiny cast of only four talented musicians/singers – David M. Lutken, David Finch, Leenya Rideout, and Helen Jean Russell – handle over thirty songs at a skill level which is a true ode to the level of talent of Woody Guthrie himself. They play numerous instruments ranging from the guitar, ukulele, bass, violin, banjo, and so many others.
Back to front: David Finch, Leenya Rideout, Helen Jean Russell, and David M. Lutken at The Cleveland Play House. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.
My exposure to Guthrie’s music dates mostly back to learning “This Land is My Land” in elementary school, so I always dismissed his music as being cute and frothy. Boy was I wrong! Guthrie was a fighter who sang about the struggles of an era. He told stories of real people struggling to pay rent, losing their houses. He sang of the depression, hard economic times, and union struggles. When I click on the radio now I mostly hear songs about sex and making it rich. I relate to Guthrie’s music more. Songs like “I Ain’t Got No Home,” or “Going Down That Road Feelin’ Bad” hit me right in the gut. Over the last few years as hard economic times have once more washed over America, Guthrie’s music is surprising relevant – maybe even more so than what many modern musicians are writing and recording.
What Woody Sez captures best is Guthrie’s talent to create music that speaks to the surrounding wrongs whilst still lifting the spirit-not an easy task to do. Lead actor David M. Lutken managers to charm and make the audience smile, even while singing about tragedy and homelessness as in “Dust Storm Disaster,” and “I Ain’t Got No Home” - making him more than worthy of his Helen Hayes Award win for Best Actor in a Resident Musical. Theater J supports the production’s concept of finding joy through life’s struggles, by holding a number of hootenannys throughout the production run – chances for the audience to come together and participate in creating this spirited music for each other.
Woody Sez is a perfect pick for a cold winter’s night when we need a reminder that music can uplift us through the hard times.