Woody Sez, Arts Theatre
If it hadn’t been for a friend’s recommendation, I probably wouldn’t have been to see Woody Sez, a musical about the American folk singer of the mid-twentieth century, Woody Guthrie, devised by David M. Lutken. Luckily, my ignorance is not typical and nor did it stop me going, and Woody Guthrie has a loyal following of all ages, most of whom had flocked excitedly to this show. Guthrie, it transpires, was an important folk singer who bravely confronted his country’s politics, and irked the government, through his songs. With hindsight I wouldn’t have missed this show for the world and, far from being a nostalgic tribute work, the piece pointed out the uncanny relevance that Guthrie’s lyrics and sentiments have to our society today, with songs such as ‘Jolly Banker’ and ‘So Long It’s Been Good To Know Yuh’ striking chords in our financially stricken era both here and across the pond.
David M. Lutken’s ingenious show is one of the most original around. Playing Woody Guthrie with a mellow gravitas and sense of humour that is like a razor wrapped in cotton wool, he narrates Woody’s life in the first person earnestly and directly. He is supported by a super-talented cast of actor/musicians, who can not only all act, sing and play an instrument, but can play a myriad of different instruments, switching between them effortlessly. There is no tuning up, warming up or lining up sheet music – the instruments are plucked from the wings and played with a spontaneous abandon that is infectious. Each musical number, therefore, has a unique timbre, from the haunting beauty of Ruth Clarke-Irons accompanying herself on fiddle as she sings snippets of ‘The Ballad of Tom Joad’ throughout the show, to the exhilarating bluegrass sound of something like ‘This Train is Bound for Glory’.
Each actor takes on several cameo roles of people that featured in Guthrie’s life from his unstable, pyromaniac mother (played sensitively by Helen Jean Russell, who gives an exquisite rendition of ‘Curly Headed Baby’) to his eccentric fiddle-playing uncle (played by William Wolfe Hogan, who gives a manically virtuosic rendition of ‘Talkin’ Dust Bowl’) to his young daughter (played by Ruth Clarke-Irons, who drives forward the hilarious and poignant ‘Riding in the Car’ song).
It’s an inspiring example of ensemble theatre and sensitive musical ensemble all in one. The performers accompany each other just as well as they take the limelight. There are passages of mouth-watering harmony and some songs so rousing that the audience are singing along more loudly than the performers. The direction and musical direction are impressively slick meaning that each musical number has effective contour lines and moments of choreographic brilliance.
There is an appealing simplicity and innocence to this show that musicals rarely have the confidence to parade these days. But it’s not prim or old-fashioned in the least and pokes fun at its own individuality (Lutken jokes that they’re going to do a medley for the finale, like in Mamma Mia). The simplicity is effectively achieved through the performers remaining in one costume throughout, the scenery staying the same (projections of Guthrie, a plough in a field, and the deathly dust storm that is recollected), the performers not being mic-ed, as well as the direct, first-person narration that propels the story forward. Similarly, Guthrie’s life is poignant, significant and has political repercussions, but in other ways is unremarkable. It takes artistic confidence and vision to pull off something like this, but David M. Lutken and his talented team obviously have such qualities in wagonfuls.