By BRIAN BINGAMAN
“Woody Sez” at People’s Light & Theatre in Malvern is full of revelations about an American icon and the times he lived in.
For example, “This Land is Your Land,” an answer song to “God Bless America,” has two politically-charged verses that are usually omitted, even by the guy who wrote them.
Woody Guthrie, perhaps the all-time most universally recognizable name in folk music, wrote, by the account of “Woody Sez” actor and co-creator David M. Lutken, more than 2,400 songs besides “This Land is Your Land.” If you’re lucky, you might hear as many as 30 of them during this show that’s culled from Guthrie’s writings.
“This Train is Bound for Glory,” “Curly Headed Baby,” “Jackhammer John,” “Riding in My Car,” “I Ain’t Got No Home,” “Vigilante Man,” “Union Maid,” “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh,” “The Jolly Banker,” “Do Re Mi” and parts of the epic “Ballad of Tom Joad” are all there. Although a cast soundtrack CD is available for sale, there’s puzzlingly no guide to the songs in the playbill — something all shows with music in them should have.
In particular Guthrie’s Dust Bowl ballads, and his firsthand accounts of working class people beaten down and desperately struggling through the Great Depression, serve up memorably hard-hitting realism (especially against the backdrop by scenic artist Will Scribner). It’s from there that Guthrie’s championing of union causes was born, as well as related associations with U.S. Communist groups, which landed him on “the black list, the red list … every color list there was,” even after serving as a U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II. It is a tribute to Lutken, a native Texan, that his portrayal of the Oklahoma-born, anti-elitist bard gets you inside Guthrie’s worldview and rambling, sometimes-tragic life, even 46 years after Huntington’s disease took him at the age of 55.
“You know what an artist is, right? Someone who’s been out of work so long they learned to do something else,” Lutken quips in character.
Lutken is joined on stage by musicians/actors Darcie Deaville, Helen J. Russell and either Andy Teirstein or David Finch. The ensemble, which periodically shows off their dancing skills, has an onstage acoustic arsenal that includes a violin, mandolin, banjo, autoharp, harmonica, upright bass, spoons and even a jaws harp. Lutken’s Martin guitar, which bears the Guthrie witticism “this machine kills fascists,” is the most distinct of the bunch, bearing an open gash in the body that you swear will cause the instrument to splinter into pieces from his ferocious strumming.
Guthrie’s influential imprint on Bob Dylan, and all other like-minded singer/songwriters since, shows in a vignette representing Guthrie’s days of performing on live radio. Launching into a talking blues social commentary, the singer is promptly censored.
First performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland in 2007, “Woody Sez” is coming to the end of an all-too-short run at People’s Light, which includes post-show hootenannies with the cast at 9:15 p.m. Thursdays (bring an instrument) and “Scoop on Sundays: History, Context and Gossip” before the Sunday evening performances.
Get there early because the ensemble will treat you to some bonus pre-show music. Then the show concludes with a rousing, toe-tapping finale. “We’re going to do a medley at the curtain call, just like they do in ‘Mamma Mia’,” Lutken joked during the opening night performance May 10.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie.”
WHEN: Show times through May 25: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays.
WHERE: The Leonard C. Haas Stage at People Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road, East Whiteland Township.
TICKETS: $26-$46, with discounts for groups.
INFO: Call (610) 644-3500 or visit www.peopleslight.org or www.facebook.com/PeoplesLight. On Twitter @peopleslight.
Follow Brian Bingaman on Twitter @brianbingaman.