note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth
A hootenany in Harvard Square? Sounds unlikely, but at the American Repertory Theater’s foot-stompin’, knee-slappin’ production of “Woody Sez,” everyone enjoys getting into the act, singing along, and celebrating a huge slice of Americana as it should be.
Four talented, versatile musicians - David M. Lutken, Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell and Andy Teirstein - directed by Nick Corley, (who devised the production with Lutken), provide a low-key musical commentary-biography of Woody Guthrie. A.k.a. the Dust Bowl Troubadour, Guthrie’s music and lyrics were his sword and shield, defending migrant workers, unions, the poor, exploited, and disenfranchised. The quartet performs 31 of Guthrie’s songs, interchanging 24 instruments, from acoustic guitars, fiddles, harmonicas, viola, autoharp, Appalachian dulcimer, mandolin, banjo, pennywhistle, jaw harp, double bass, and spoons, while Lutken relates Guthrie’s life, times, and his “Woodyisms,” or pithy “Woody Sez” quotes, reminiscent of another beloved Okie, Will Rogers, but more bitingly satiric.
Guthrie lived through the oil boom in his hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma and its drying up; the Great Depression; devastating dust storm that sent thousands of Midwesterners west, seeking jobs; and World War II, the Cold and Vietnam wars.
Matt Frey’s lighting, Jeffrey Meek’s homespun costumes, along with Luke Hegel-Cantarella’s Americana patchwork background provide idyllic atmosphere for “Woody Sez”.
The four musician-singer-performers happily breeze along with the breeze and melodies, having a great time on stage, while making eye and interactive contact with this receptive, delighted audience. Whether he’s playing the harmonica, spoons, or any other instrument, slapping out the beat, acting or clowning around, Teirstein spreads cheer, while all four take us “Down the Road Feelin’ Fine,” and “Bound for Glory” in every number. Darcie Deaville on fiddle and Helen Jean Russell on bass and various other instruments have theatergoers keeping time and singing along in spite of themselves.
Guthrie, born July 14, 1912 in Okemah, Okla., moved around a lot, traveling on the road, riding and working on the rails, during his youth and later years. During World War II, he served in the Army and the Merchant Marines.
He composed and sang melodic folk songs that sounded patriotic, but his lyrics, commentaries, and books packed powerful, political and societal wallops. In fact, many songs popularly sung in rounds, with harmonic refrains, are anti-Vietnam War, pro-union and worker rallying cries, such as “Union Maid,” “Sinking of the Ruben James,” “Them Old Cotton Fields Back Home,” and the legendary “If I Had a Hammer” .
Ironically, Guthrie’s beloved “This Land is Your Land,” is an antidote to Irving Berlin’s anthem, “God Bless America”. Guthrie’s final stanza highlights the way America should be, not is. His work also parallels John Steinbeck’s plight of migrant workers, in “Grapes of Wrath,” for which Guthrie penned “The Ballad of Tom Joad,” based on Steinbeck’s hero.
Multi-talented, lanky David Lutken as Guthrie is refreshingly sincere, singing and strumming Guthrie’s tunes with gusto, as he traces highlights of Guthrie’s life - the rise and fall of his father’s financial status; his mother’s erratic behavior, pyromania, and diagnosis of Huntington’s Chorea; the death of his sister Clara in a house fire; his leaving home early to earn a living, playing music on the streets and in clubs; his three marriages; eight children; battles with radio stations where he injected his Okie humor with satiric barbs. Unfortunately, Guthrie inherited his mother’s debilitating disease, for which she was institutionalized in an Oklahoma mental hospital --- as was he, in Queens, NY.
Guthrie blazed another new trail in music that has been adopted by countless greats and groups, including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and his son, Arlo Guthrie. He wrote many songs Americans mistake for handed-down folk tunes or standard classics. But with this fine production, Guthrie’s songs ring out today as loudly as they did when he wrote them, inspiring audiences to raise their voices and Guthrie’s banner against poverty and exploitation even higher.
Be sure to see “Woody Sez,” especially on a Thursday night, and join in the post-show, free-form hootenany. As the cast and spontaneous musician-singers led an hourlong toe-tapping singalong and jam in the lobby, a dignified gent shook a handheld rhythm maker, and a woman sidled up to the piano, playing ragtime, while everyone improvised to her beat. Joy rippled through the crowd.
Here’s a side note: actor-musician David Finch replaces versatile, multi-talented Teirstein May 22-25.
BOX INFO: One-act, 90-minute performance chronicling the life and music of Woody Guthrie, devised by David M. Lutken with Nick Corley, appearing with the American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Harvard Square, Cambridge. Recommended for 10-year-olds-up. By popular demand, performances extended through June 3: Saturday, Tuesday-Friday, at 7:30 p.m.; matinees, Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday, at 2 p.m., Tuesday, May 22, at 10 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.; check other times. Post-show hootenannies Thursdays; Wednesday, May 23, with Marylou Ferrante. Tickets start at $25. Call 617-547-8300 or visit americanrepertorytheater.org.