Woody Sez -- 5 out of 5 stars
Review by Johnny Plankton
If you're a theatergoer and you're looking for a lighthearted musical romp to take away your workaday troubles, you might want to skip the American Repertory Theater's production of Woody Sez and save your dollars for the next staging of Mamma Mia! But if you're looking for a great night of American folk music and an unflinching biography of Woody Guthrie, the godfather of American folk/protest singers, the ART has got a ticket with your name on it.
Given the material - a look at the trauma filled childhood of Guthrie, the dreary economic times when he was at the height of his creative and political awareness-raising powers, and his own heartbreaking episodes later in life - it may be difficult to conceive of this production as uplifting. But Guthrie's work, which skewered those in power through humor and music and laid the foundation for television shows like The Smothers Brothers, Flip Wilson and Laugh-In in the Sixties through today's Daily Show and Colbert Report, elevates the otherwise tragic events to a celebration of those willing to fight back under brutal circumstances.
The simple set consists of a backdrop of three 6' x 10' photographs depicting the bleak landscape of Oklahoma during the post Dust Bowl days, as well as a few smaller photos of Guthrie and ominous signs reminding the audience that American labor /business relations have been brutal for a long time. The stage is peppered with a myriad of folk instruments - fiddles, guitars, an upright bass, autoharp, banjos and mandolins -that will soon be set afire by the talented musician/actors. The show opens with the four performers straggling one by one onto the stage and tuning up, and the two female performers encouraging the audience to continue chatting as they "warm up" with a song, before the entire cast breaks into the instantly familiar Guthrie classic, "This Train is Bound for Glory."
The story is convincing told through song, from the influence Woody's mom had on him musically, his relationships with his sisters, his mother's insidious mental illness (which manifested itself in pyromania) and the subsequent fracturing of the family through poverty and that mental illness. It continues with the development of Guthrie as a performer and labor activist, including a great scene of him biting the hand that feeds him by defying the censorship of certain lyrics and singing the full length version of "This Land Is Your Land" (not as saccharine as you'd remember) on a syndicated New York radio program and his subsequent firing from the show.
The cast is terrific, particularly musically, and they've got some pretty good acting chops as well. David M. Lutken (who devised the show, along with director Nick Corley) plays Woody with a plainspoken conviction in his dramatic narration, along with his great playing (guitar, harmonica) and he is pretty light on his feet when the tunes call for some dance steps. The rest of the cast play a multitude of roles, from backup singers to sisters, aunts and uncles and fellow musicians. Helen Jean Russell transforms her natural sweet smile into the fear-ridden expressions of horror of the deeply troubled mother beautifully, while Darcie Deaville and Andy Teirstein do whatever is asked while displaying some mean (?) folk chops. Teirstein camps it up with some of the trickier instruments, including the penny whistle, Jew Harp and a very funny bit of spoons playing.
If you don't think you're familiar with Guthrie's songbook, you'll probably find yourself saying "I didn't know he wrote that!", an awful lot during the show as I did, and even for those who don't particularly like folk music, the score is moving and fun. (One other note: it will be difficult to not draw parallels of what is occurring in the political/economic arena now with what went on during the twenties, and Fox News watchers may not be crazy about the celebration of the life of this American hero - who was a self-professed communist and was blacklisted for it in the fifties.) But it would be tough to beat this show for an uplifting look at some very distressing material.
In addition to the show itself, the A.R.T. will be holding post-show hootenannies after Thursday evening performances, and will simulcast the show live - the first live outdoor simulcast of a theater production outside of New York. The simulcast will be presented in collaboration with Harvard University and the American Repertory at The Plaza next to the Science Center on the Harvard campus, on Thursday, May 17th.
American Repertory Theater’s
THE LIFE & MUSIC OF WOODY GUTHRIE
Live Outdoor Simulcast on Thursday, May 17 on Harvard Campus
Honoring Woody Guthrie Centennial Celebration
Sara Lee Guthrie performs live prior to simulcast
Cambridge, Mass — The American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) production Woody Sez, a musical tapestry of the American folk hero’s life and songs, is to be simulcast live — the first live outdoor simulcast of a theater production outside of New York. The simulcast will be presented in collaboration with Harvard University and the American Repertory at The Plaza next to the Science Center on the Harvard campus, on Thursday, May 17th.
The Simulcast will be preceded by a 6:30pm live performance with Sara Lee Guthrie, Woody Guthrie’s granddaughter, programmed by Harvard Square’s Club Passim. The live simulcast from the Loeb Drama Center begins at 7:30pm. After the show, the performers will join the simulcast audience for a celebration of Woody Guthrie’sCentennial with a birthday cake and a hootenanny. Simulcast audience members are encouraged to bring their own instruments and join the party. A large tent will be erected at the Plaza in case of rain; a concessions stand and a cash bar will also be open during the performance.
The event is free and open to the public but tickets will be required. They can be obtained from the Harvard Box Office beginning May 3. There will be a limit of 4 tickets per person, pending availability. Tickets obtained by phone and on-line will incur a processing fee. For more info visit the Harvard box office website: https://www.boxoffice.harvard.edu/Online/
WOODY SEZ: THE LIFE & MUSIC OF WOODY GUTHRIE was devised by David M. Lutken with Nick Corley, is being performed by David M. Lutken, Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell, and Andy Teirsten, and directed by Nick Corley. Performances begin on Saturday, May 5 and run through Saturday, May 26.
One of the most influential song writers and balladeers of the 20th century, Woody Guthrie is a musical hero of legendary proportions who transformed folk music into a vehicle for social protest and captured the adversity and hardship of a generation during the Great Depression. His music and activism paved the way for many great American music makers including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash and many more.
Woody Sez brings the giant to life in a joyous, toe-tapping, and moving theatrical portrait that uses Woody's words and songs, performed by the company of four singers and instrumentalists who play over twenty instruments, transporting the audience through Guthrie’s fascinating, beautiful, and sometimes tragic life. With more than 25 classic Woody tunes including This Land is Your Land and Bound for Glory, Woody Sez captures the heart and spirit of Woody Guthrie and the stories of America.
The American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) is one of the country’s most celebrated theaters and the winner of numerous awards, including the Tony Award, the Pulitzer Prize and Elliot Norton and I.R.N.E. Awards. In May of 2003 it wasnamed one of the top three regional theaters in the country by Time magazine. The A.R.T. was founded by Robert Brustein in 1980, who served as Artistic Director until 2002, when he was succeeded by Robert Woodruff. In 2008, Diane Paulus became the A.R.T.’s Artistic Director. During its 32-year history, the A.R.T. has welcomed many major American and international theater artists, presenting a diverse repertoire that includes premieres of American plays, bold reinterpretations of classical texts and provocative new music theater productions. The A.R.T. has performed throughout the U.S. and worldwide in 21 cities in 16 countries on four continents. Since becoming Artistic Director, Diane Paulus has programmed innovative work that has enhanced theA.R.T.’s core mission to expand the boundaries of theater. Productions such as Sleep No More, The Donkey Show, Gatz, Porgy and Bess, Prometheus Bound, and Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera have immersed audiences in original theatrical experiences. The A.R.T.’s club theater, OBERON, which Paulus calls a ""second stage for the 21st century,"" has become an incubator for local artists and has also attracted national attention for its groundbreaking model for programming. Through all of its work, the A.R.T. is committed to building a community of artists, technicians, educators, staff and audience, all of who are integral to the A.R.T.’s mission.
The Loeb Drama Center, located at 64 Brattle Street, Harvard Square, Cambridge, is accessible to persons with special needs and to those requiring wheelchair seating or first-floor restrooms. Deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons can also reach the theater by calling the toll-free N.E. Telephone Relay Center at 1-800-439-2370. For further information call 617-547-8300 or visit americanrepertorytheater.org
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