Thursday, September 19, 2013

WOODY [GUTHRIE] SEZ, a dang good 98th season opener at CPH

Even before the official start of WOODY SEZ, the cast of four set the melodic and emotional mood by playing music and interacting with the audience.

As the music driven WOODY SEZ:  THE LIFE & MUSIC OF WOODY GUTHERIE unfolds, we are exposed to Guthrie, the man, his life and his music.

From early on, until his death from complications of Huntington’s disease in 1967 at age 55, Guthrie acted as a spokesperson for the poor, the disenfranchised, and the union and non-union members who were taken advantage of by company stores, big business, acts of nature, and politicians.  His emotional and purposeful vocals, his twangy guitar, harmonica, mandolin and fiddle playing, reeked of down home Okie ideals.  They highlighted his experiences in the Dust Bowl era and Great Depression and help teach a solid history lesson of the era.

His strong political views earned him the “honor” of being blacklisted, investigated by the FBI, and censored in his media appearances.

Guthrie’s outspoken nature and obligation to speak out cost him three marriages and solid relationships with his eight children.  One of his sons, Arlo, took up his mantle and became a renowned folk musician.

He is credited with inspiring and mentoring a generation of new folk musicians, including Ramblin Jack Elliott and Bob Dylan.

Guthrie is noted for such songs as “So Long it’s Been Good to Know Yuh,” “This Train is Bound for Glory,” “Pastures of Plenty,” “The Ballad of Tom Joad,” and  “Nickel, Nickel.”  He wrote what many consider the country’s spiritual anthem, “This Land Is Your Land.”

The Cleveland Play House production, under the adept direction of Nick Corley, who co-devised the script, wraps the audience in music, tales and morals.   There is an easy, comfortable pace and mood to the two-act, hour and a half show that is enhanced by the intimacy of the Allen theatre.  This ability to create closeness highlights yet another reason why the CPH move to downtown was a wise choice, as the old theatre spaces didn’t offer such a venue.

The simple set, consisting of a series of shipping cases, serves as places to store the multitude of guitars, fiddles, harmonicas, autoharp, Appalachian dulcimer, double bass, mandolin, banjo, pennywhistle, jawharp and soup spoons, which were played by the performers.  They also served as places for individual cast members to sit when they were not performing.

David Lutken, who authored the piece, inhabits the personage of Guthrie so well that it is easy to forget his is not the man himself.  Lutken obviously knows Guthrie, his music, his mannerisms, and his sense of humor.  He is a multi-talented musician who well creates the thoughts, desires, and wisdom of the “Dust Bowl Troubadour.”

David Finch, Helen Jean Russell and Leenya Rideout are all outstanding musicians and performers who well portray many people who affected and influenced Guthrie’s life and beliefs.  Pleasurably, none of the cast or their instruments are encumbered by microphones, so there is a natural, not artificial sound to the music and the singing.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  If your definition of a musical is an orchestra in the pit, dancing, and a plot in which the songs perfectly fit into the story line, WOODY SEZ: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF WOODY GUTHRIE isn’t for you.  If, however, you get off on learning about a real person, and sharing his music and philosophy, presented by an engaging note-perfect cast, this is the show for you.  CPH has opened its 98th season with a sure audience pleaser!

WOODY SEZ runs through October 6, 2013 at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to