Woodrow ‘Woody’ Guthrie claimed that songs from lands he had never visited taught him how to relate to strangers. Taking their cue from Woody, David M Lutkin (who performs as Guthrie) and Nick Corley (who directs) use the songs and homilies of Guthrie to tell the life story of the Dust Bowl Balladeer.
There is a risk that this approach could cheapen the source material, but, as the show demonstrates, the scope of Guthrie’s work went well beyond the protest songs for which he is famous. There are also comic numbers and children’s songs. Biographical material is conveyed succinctly and, when mixed with the musical excerpts, touches on deeper emotional aspects of the story. Guthrie’s itinerant lifestyle is attributed to the fact that, after his mother’s mind was ravaged by Huntington’s cholera, he could no longer endure staying at home.
Guthrie’s life was blighted by tragedy – the loss of family members and the irony of succumbing to the same disease that destroyed his mother. Yet Guthrie had the rare ability to put his own suffering in the wider context of the greater misfortunes of others. Corley catches this attribute and sets an atmosphere of reflection rather than bitterness. This is marvellously shown with Lutkin, evocatively spotlighted by Matt Frey, delivering a passionate version of "Dust Storm Disaster."
An excellent trio performs the songs in the original style, avoiding Springsteen’s angst and Cooder’s punchy moderism. Ruth Clarke- Irons, Helen J Russell (who contributed to the development of the show along with Darcie Deaville and Andy Teirstein) and William Wolfe Hogan are versatile musicians and have great empathy. They can switch swiftly from a recreation of a cornball radio routine to providing backing music for powerful biographical scenes.
This is an excellent ensemble cast but the evening belongs to David Lutkin. During the deceptively casual opening to the show he reveals his lifelong interest in Guthrie but really he need not have bothered; it is apparent from his deeply committed performance that this is a labour of love. His gentle, understated, approach brings out the qualities of a restless and committed man who felt compelled to challenge injustice. If Lutkin's acting is laid back his guitar playing is anything but – in an encore he belts the instrument so passionately that he snaps a string and has to dodge the lethal wire.
Musical biographies tend to be bland; directed at audiences who are content just to hear recreations of favourite songs. Woody Sez is a rare show that challenges the audience to do more than just tap their toes and is all the more rewarding as a result.