December Round-Up I: So Long, Woody, It Was a Hoot Singin’ With Ya!

Woody Sez closed out its wonderful encore run with a Standing Room Only performance and an equally packed hootenanny on December 14th that spoke volumes about the reasons for gathering to celebrate story and song. We’ve said it before, quoting Pete Seeger: The Power of Singing Together. You can feel it here, in this generous clip recorded by Lois Fingerhut, take in our DCJCC Community Hall – over 120 singers joined by 8 guitars, 4 banjos, a bass, mandolin, harmonica, spoons, clicking cup; you name it, it was assembled for our final hoot, as we sang “Woody’s Children” led by Doug Mishkin.


And we got the joint warmed up with Dylan and more Seeger.


As we wrote in the program…

We wanted Woody back even before Theatre Washington offered its Helen Hayes endorsements because we knew this show had captured something special during last year’s rousing DC premiere. Perhaps it was the power of the inspired hootenannies after many a sterling performance. Perhaps it was the clapping together in the theater, or the collective movement to tears when Woody loses his mom, or when his mom returns just as Woody loses his own control of locomotion; the fine circularity of this deceptively rich and beautifully structured show. It was a show that brought us together. After so much that’s pulled us apart as a nation—including art keeps asking provocative questions of us a community; these are times that have tested our mettle, our values, our cohesiveness—Here’s a show to bring about some binding. Here’s a troubadour—admired and widely recognized—bringing empathy and identification to the anonymously forgotten; to the nameless and the downtrodden. We wanted to be around that generous spirit that was Woody Guthrie and this wonderfully generous tribute to him just a little bit longer; to make our connection to Woody’s triumphant, enduring legacy that much stronger.

Long may we be inspired. To sing. And speak out.



“Woody Sez” Rolls On With More Hoots

One night after the high-powered  production of If/Then at The National, it was back to acoustic  instruments and the homespun inspiration of the original ramblin’ boy Woody Guthrie, as our student subscribers’ final outing of the semester  saw us  return to Theater J on another historic Friday night performance.  Historic because this time we were following the   Shabbat performance with a Shabbat Hootenanny sing-along which included songs with Cantor Michael Zoosman (husband to our Director of Community Outreach and New Media, Molly Winston). So in addition to old standby Bob Dylan (“The Times They Are A Changing,” “Blowin’ In The Wind),” “Town-O,” “500 Miles” and “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” led by Woody Sez cast members Leenya Rideout and David Finch, we had Cantor Mike leading us on “Tumbalalaika” and “Oseh Shalom” and “Bim Bam Shabbat Shalom.” A perfect Jewish summer camp fusion. Check out a clip from the Shabbat Hootenanny sing-along here:

Woody Sez Shabbat Hootenanny Sing a long from Theater J on Vimeo.

But what did last night’s audience make of the entirety of the experience? The contrast of two such different musicals in Woody and If/Then? The construction of the show? The relevance of the lyrics? How does Woody read to a generation of early 20-somethings?  Eager to read.

And I encourage y’all to peruse back to other postings of Woody Sez. Review some other write-ups of our hootenannies and see some footage too. Check out a round up of Woody Sez’s recent summer trip to Israel.Woody Sez at Arlozorov Encampment

There’s another hoot this Sunday night at 9:45 — and a final one next Saturday night (closing night), December 14 at 9:45 again.  Bring instruments.  Come for the finale!Hootenanny-7

The “If/Then” Impact on DC Theater

Thursday night was a balmy 63 degrees and The National Theatre was 90% filled to capacity with a healthy rage of theater goers–young girls who’d grown up on Wicked–40-somethings on the older side of being Rent-Heads–and then the Kennedy Center herd come to see the latest commercial offering–all there to take in Idena–that Wicked Witch All Grown Up and ten years since her Tony— Idina Menzel Above The Title, holding together a wild if unbelieveably complicatedly-plotted musical all by herself in the world premiere of the Tom Kitt/Brian Yorkey’s If/Then. IdinaMenzel_National TheatreWe were four floors up at The National, on our last week of theater-going, our UM/UC/ND student subscribers and me, experiencing the exact opposite of “intimate theater” (no Apple Family immediacy up in the Nose Bleed section). This was “Showtime.”  A brand new musical. Smash and Glee and a 21st Century aforementioned Rent made singable for the Age of Gay Marriage. You’ll hear about the show in a second in the Comments.  Most of our group seemed to love it. Some didn’t. One hated it, I know that for sure. Which makes a horse race, right?

As the evening ended and over 1,200  poured  onto the streets in another DC-on-the-verge-of-Becoming moment that reminded me of magical nights coming out of the MCI Center (now the Verizon Phonebooth) when Michael Jordan was new in town—before that experiment had soured—when the city was grooving; folks from all stripes and walks hitting the streets en masse after an electric game, all of us, it seemed, on our way to the Chop House and for a moment, feeling like we were in New York spilling out of The Garden—once again Mci_center_jan2006aDC had it going on this temperate theater night; we were a Happening Spot sporting a major commercial venture Bound For Broadway. (And maybe this time, the magic will linger a lot longer than MJ’s tenure in DC). If/Then Producer David Stone was finding a way for DC audiences to buy into something new, untested, with an amazingly talented company, and building up an impressive war-chest of an advance. Michael Greif was back in town too. You’ll remember Michael directed Rent at New York Theatre Workshop, and Betty Rules! Off-Broadway at The Zipper and later at Theater J, twice… And before all that, he’d directed an early version of my coming-of-age plays Giant Shadows (which would go onto become Andy and The Shadows) and Private Lessons (which would be expanded to become Oh, The Innocents, later directed by Wicked’s Joe Mantello). So Greif was back, big actors too, big producer, big coverage, and tons of audience showing up. Culturally, DC was full of possibility Thursday night. And remains so.

But a juggernaut like If/Then turns out to have  not only an inspiring effect on our theatergoing community. It also sucks up a lot of air, demanding a lot of time, press attention, digital ink, and audience money. And so our non-commerical, local  producing outfit  wonders whether If/Then has indeed been holding the spotlight to the detriment of local offerings. After countless fall previews, features, and blog posts about the show, we have to ask if other straight plays and chamber musicals have lost out in the process, while If/Then–the big Work-in- Progress–profits handsomely. The show, which may or may not prosper on The Great White Way when it opens there in March, has done big business here. While our fall shows, may be performing beautifully, but financially they’re under-selling. On that same balmy Thursday night with so many spilling out of the National or attending the new Malcom Jamal Warner revival at Arena, our Helen Hayes Award winning production of Woody Sez played to our tiniest audience of the season. Of many a season. Was it an aberration? A freaky Thursday where Woody’s anti-corporate message  got trounced by Glee-driven commercialism? As Marvin Gaye used to say, “What’s Going On?”

Let’s ask that about If/Then. What Is Going On in this crazy, inventive, confusing plot that Brian Yorkey’s put together? I’d like our intelligent young folks to sort that out. For us.  For me. I mean, I liked it, but I didn’t buy it. I wish this musical very well, and hope they make that plot more cleverly crucial before it hits Broadway. Unknown-7

But I won’t be too sad when this juggernaut  leaves town. Of course, much more commercial fare is on the way to take its place. The challenges of drawing new audience to the non-commercial will remain ever so challenging.  Onward to meet the task!

New “Woody Sez” Press!

FIVE STARS 82x15 in DC METRO THEATRE ARTS and a great feature in The Forward

The Arty Semite

Woody Guthrie Gets Onstage Musical Treatment

By Lisa Traiger

      Woody Guthrie sang of America’s “redwood forests” and “gulf stream waters.” The traveling troubadour and American folk poet electrified a nation with his paeans to America’s indomitable spirit and beauty.


David Lutken as Woody Guthrie in ‘Woody Sez.’

Oklahoma-born and Texas-raised, he also ignited mighty debates with songs and writings that took on the establishment and sought to elevate the working masses. His guitar bore the message: “This machine kills fascists.” And he even has a Jewish connection, that lives on in some of his music and his ideals.

His baldly patriotic hymn to his country, “This Land Is Your Land,” features a stanza that states: “In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, / By the relief office I seen my people; / As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking / Is this land made for you and me?”

Guthrie’s songs, spirit and life have been brought to the stage in a 90-minute musical biography written and performed by actor and musician David Lutken. His “Woody Sez,” developed with Nick Corley, tells the singer/songwriter’s story in song.

“Growing up in Texas I learned a lot of folk songs that had to do with the West and with America,” Lutken said. “Woody Guthrie was right in there. I didn’t know at the time when I was singing his ‘Take Me Riding in the Car Car’ when I was 5 that that was job training.” The show premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe festival in 2007 and has since toured the U.S. and beyond. It returns to Washington, D.C.’sTheater J through December 14 and then moves to Milwaukee Repertory Theater in January.

A proletarian poet, Guthrie developed a deep and abiding relationship with Jews and Jewish virtues through his marriage to modern dancer Marjorie Mazia. Eventually the couple settled in a house on Mermaid Avenue, not far from Guthrie’s Yiddish-speaking in-laws on Coney Island. In fact, composer and instrumentalist Andy Teirstein, who performs in the show, said Guthrie took Judaism classes at Brooklyn College and had Shabbos dinners at home. His mother-in-law, Aliza Greenblatt, was a kindred spirit. The Yiddish poet and the Okie with a guitar found common ground in writing.

Read more here.

‘Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie’ at Theater J

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.

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.

From left: David Finch, David M. Lutken (as Woody Guthrie), Helen Jean Russell ,and Leenya Rideout.Photo by Roger Mastroianni.

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.