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Woody Sez

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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Infused with a passion for its subject clearly channelled by the four performers, Woody Sez at the Arts Theatre is an uplifting piece of musical theatre about arguably one of the most influential and interesting musical personalities of the 20th century.

Woody Guthrie is nowadays perhaps most remembered as an inspiration and mentor to Bob Dylan but in reality was a prolific personality in his own right, as songwriter, traveller or producer of children (he fathered eight). Going on to play with musical greats like Lead Belly, having served on a WWII Merchant Navy ship and influencing a generation of songwriters.

Packing all of this into an hour and half is an all but an impossible feat, but the four performers led by the show's musical director David M Lutken - whose previous credits include the Broadway Johnny Cash musical Ring of Fire and appearing here playing Woody - create a relaxed atmosphere that never subsides.

Having been well received playing the Edinburgh Fringe in 2009 the cast have clearly not lost any of their energy as each of the four specialist musicians perform on everything from upright bass to banjo. Even the spoons make an appearance, played by the versatile Andy Terstein who also sits in as the various characters who punctuate Woody's travels, he displays a wonderful sense of humour. Darcie Deaville and Helen Jean Russell are also both exceptional multi-instrumentalists and singers, backing many of the songs and taking occasional solo duties.

In a performance obviously of very personal to Lutken, Woody performs a mixture of monologue and song, always keeping the rhythm of the show moving so that bleaker moments in his life — such as his mother's progressive Huntington's disease and experiences of destitution during the Depression — are counterbalanced with riveting songs like "Jackhammer John" and two renditions of the Guthrie anthem "This Land is Your Land".

Set against a simple but effective design by Luke Hegel-Cantarella that included a rural landscape background and a handful of black and white images of the man himself, the instruments and their performers do more than enough to hold the attention, and shiny shoes aside, the four performers' costumes by Jeffrey Meek authentically complement the sense of time and place painted by the evocative lyrics.

Woody Sez contains enough wit, music and brevity to appeal to young and old alike, and whilst economic and political hardship is still an everyday issue, this revisiting of Woody Guthrie's musical legacy seems perfect timing to introduce another generation to his music.

- Alexei Slater


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