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'Woody Sez' draws audience in right away
Woody Guthrie's iconic music comes alive in Rep's production

By JULIE McHALE - TimeOut Theater Critic

January 16, 2014

 

MILWAUKEE - We are hooked in the first five minutes with the “Woody Sez” production at the Stackner Cabaret. As soon as David M. Lutken, who plays Woody, introduces himself to us, we immediately respond positively to him, and as the show goes on, we only admire and enjoy him more. He recently received the Helen Hayes award for best lead actor, a well-deserved honor, for his role in this piece.

This group of four multi-talented musicians, with their diversity and range, captures our souls and our hearts, with their enthusiasm, their expertise (where they make the difficult look easy) and their message. Woody Guthrie comes alive again, and we realize that the social injustices he wrote and sang about are still prevalent and relevant.  He strongly influenced other folk singers who followed him, such as Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and his own son Arlo.

Though some reviled his social criticism, for there will always be those who see any criticism of America as anti-patriotic, even communistic, many supported the sentiments he messaged through his music.

He was very pro-union because he wanted the powerless to balance out the stranglehold of the rich and influential; he was critical of the government for  often being oblivious and not reaching out enough in times of crisis; he was very sympathetic toward children as the victims of many of society’s ills; he was pro-war because of the brutality of fascism, serving himself for several years in the Merchant Marines and the Army during WWII.  He wrote prolifically and performed in many climes and venues. He traveled a lot and seemed driven by his desire to be a spokesman for the less fortunate among us.

He is best known for his song, “This Land is Your Land,” written and first performed in 1940. Since then, it has become an icon for a certain genre of folk music. He traveled the country, which might account for his failed three marriages. In 1952, at the age of 40, he was diagnosed with Huntington’s Chorea, a debilitating disease, which pretty much ended his career as a singer, but his songs continued to gain popularity, and some of his writings were published. He was revered in the music world and continued to be visited by many until his death in 1967 at the age of 55.

All four members of the cast can sing and play several instruments - harmonicas, mandolins, fiddles, bass, and guitars. Separately or together, they  make toe-tapping, energized music.

Helen Jean Russell plays bass and sings like an angel. Leenya  Rideout is a mean fiddler and also adept at the mandolin. David Finch brings a strong comic sense to his role as well as multiple musical skills. The four performers pair off in various configurations for a nice mix.

Lutken as Woody has the most solos. His most exceptional ones include “Why Do You Stand There in the Rain,” “Dust Storm Disaster,” and “I Ain’t Got No Home.” Finch’s most noteworthy numbers are “JackHammer John,” and “Goin Down that Road Feelin Bad,” where he collaborates with Russell and Rideout.

The best ensemble numbers include “This Train is Bound for Glory,” “Internationale,” “Them Old Cotton Fields Back Home” and, of course, “This Land is Your Land.”

One left highly entertained and inspired. “Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie,” directed by Nick Corley and David Lutken, runs into March with many performances per week. The bonus of a hootenanny is offered after the show every Thursday evening, so bring your instruments and join this quartet of talents for a rousing good time.

‘Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie” runs through March 9 at the Stackner Cabaret Theatre, located on the second floor of the Intercontinental Hotel building, 108 E. Well St., Milwaukee. For show times and tickets, call 414-291-9490 or visit their website at www.milwaukeerep.com.