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Hartford Theaterworks' showcases singer-activist's music and life in 'Woody Sez'

David Finch, David Lutken, Leenya Rideout and Helen Russell in a scene from "Woody Sez" at Hartford Theaterworks
David Finch, David Lutken, Leenya Rideout and Helen Russell in a scene from "Woody Sez" at Hartford TheaterworksLanny Nagler, Theaterworks Hartford

'Woody Sez' at Hartford Theaterworks

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For the baby boomer generation, Woody Guthrie was known primarily as the father of folk singer Arlo Guthrie (“Alice’s Restaurant). Arlo fans were aware that Woody had been some sort of pioneering folk singer and those who were especially involved with the folk movement were aware that singer Pete Seeger had taken on Woody’s role as a progressive activist as well as emerging as a strong promoter of Woody’s life and work. But for mainstream America, the life and legacy of Woody Guthrie remains a foggy legend of the past.

The splendid musical kaleidoscope of Woody’s life and music, “Woody Sez,” goes a long way to informing contemporary audiences about the importance of Guthrie not only to folk music, but also to the union movement of the 1930’s and the entire history of the protest song. No one has conveyed the harsh working conditions of California migrant workers or the greed of corporate managers as melodically and eloquently as Guthrie.

Devised by David Lutken, who stars as Woody in the current Hartford Theatreworks production, and Nick Corley, who directs, with the assistance of the production’s original cast, “Woody Sez” covers the formative years of Woody’s life, from his tragic childhood with a musically –minded but mentally ill mother that also saw the loss of his beloved sister in a horrifying accident , and as a one of the original Okies, those Oklahomans who fled the state for supposedly greener pastures in California following the droughts and dust storms that plagued the lower Midwest and left much of the population with no food and no money, literally just the clothes on their backs. It traces his interest in music, from performing with the Corn Cob Trio to speaking out on his own, which endeared him to his fellow Okies and other progressive activists.

Interspersed with Woody’s story is his music, played on a wide-ranging assortment of instruments by the production’s cast of four, including Helen J. Russell, one of the original cast, David Finch and Leenya Rideout, who have played in previous productions of “Woody Sez” here and abroad. They are all incredibly talented musicians, singers and actors, able to slide in and out of character as the various family members, friends and strangers that Woody encounters on his various journeys.

What’s apparent throughout the evening are these artists’ passion for their subject. Their renditions of Woody’s works are infused with energy and enthusiasm that reveals their great respect for the man and their recognition of the power of his songs. Lutken and Corley make sure that Woody’s words and music remain central to the production, easily understood and quite catchy, which of course was Woody’s intention. He knew that irresistible tunes and carefully repeated lyrics would be more memorable and able to take on a life of their own, which as songs such as “This Land Is Your Land” and “This Train is Bound for Glory” attest, they did and still do, till this day.

Lutken himself bears a decent resemblance to Guthrie and captures the singer’s vocal mannerisms and Midwest accent quite believably. His lanky frame accommodates the movements of a man who hitched rides on trains and lived the life of hobo for quite a few years. His narration reveals Woody’s deep-seated sympathy for the lives led by the displaced during those dustbowl years, who never know where their next meal is coming from or where they are going to be able to spend the following night. Lutken is able to tell a mournful story without getting too maudlin, as demonstrated in Woody’s story about an Okie family’s arrival on a California farm only to discover that the harvest keeps getting postponed, which forces this family, like the other ones already waiting, to sell all of their belongings to the farm’s owner in order to obtain credit at the company store.

Russell provides a stoic presence throughout the show, most especially in her early scenes as Woody’s strong and emphatic mother. She’s quite versatile, able to swing a large bass around the stage while singing and dancing or commanding attention during one of her various solos. David Finch is equally fine, whether picking up a banjo or briefly portraying acolyte Pete Seeger, with his energetic playing and mischievous dancing providing fine support to Woody’s songs. Leenya Rideout eschews a mean violin and is in possession of a marvelous singing voice which she employs to maximum effect on a number of emotion-drenched tunes such as her tale of a “Union Maid.”

But it is the opportunity to discover or rediscover Woody’s music, as played by this jaunty quartet, that makes the evening so worthwhile. Guthrie was able to write a sad ballad as well as a succinctly satiric patter song, which contributes to a varied evening of styles and content, all wonderfully showcased in Lutken and company’s polished arrangements. It’s a pleasant surprise to reconnect with a number of familiar tunes, such as “Riding in My Car Car” or “Jolly Banker,” having forgotten or not realizing that they are Guthrie originals. The show also makes good use of “The Ballad of Tom Joad,” inspired by Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” which intersperses some of Woody’s tales from the road.

In its favor, however, the show does not shy away from, nor does it dwell on, Woody’s own self-admitted shortcomings. His love for the road and his involvement in various political movements made him a frequently absent father, which impacted his relationships with his wives and children. The show telescopes Woody’s three marriages into brief narratives toward the end, and does spend some time on a tragic occurrence that sadly mirrors a similar occurrence from his childhood. This by no means is used to excuse Woody’s behavior, but just demonstrates again the issues Woody had to face, including his final battle with Huntington’s chorea, the genetic disease that ultimately claimed his life and was probably responsible for his mother’s condition being mistaken for mental illness.

Luke Hegel-Cantarella has designed a spacious set that resembles a wood cabin, lined with any number of guitars, violins, basses and winds along the walls which the actors grab up and use during specific musical numbers. As the set uses essentially the entire front space available, there is plenty of room for the cast to dance and wander and get genuinely involved in the music. The backdrop is of a dusty prairie scene with a windmill off to the side, a reminder of the toll that the wind took on the excessively dry land. The cast are dressed in country-style clothing appropriate to the period, with a basic, inexpensive look that no doubt typified so much of the outfits of the time. Seth Reiser’s lighting design conveys the bright heat of the prairie, as well as the unexpected comfort of a California night, while showcasing each of the actor/singers during their solos.

The title of “Woody Sez” derives from Guthrie’s way of talking to audiences as he shared his frequently charged opinions or ideas and from his writings, in which he similarly employed the words “Woody Sez.” He even had a radio show and newspaper column at different points in his life that just happened to be called “Woody Sez.” Woody made no excuses for his involvement in the communist workers’ movement of the 1930’s nor for his willingness to serve in U.S. Army in World War II to fight fascism. But while Woody’s activism and political beliefs are essential to the understanding of Woody’s music, his songs and passion remain in the audience’s memory long after the show has ended.

'Woody Sez' runs through September 14 at Hartford's Theaterworks at City Arts on Pearl at 233 Pearl Street in Hartford. For information and tickets, call the theater at 860.527.7838 or visit their website at www.theaterworkshartford.org.