Woody Sez at Westport Playhouse

 “Welcome to Katz Reviews. This is Ed Katz of Katnip Marketing- marketing consultant by day; theater critic by night- with my weekly review segment, Katz Reviews, here for you on WICC 600.

I’m not a big lover of folk music. I’m just not. So I admit I wasn’t excited to see ‘Woody Sez’- The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie- at the Westport Country Playhouse. Not to get too political but- whichever side you are on (or aren’t), I don’t like being preached to about why the “right”- or the “left”- is the only side that’s right.

And I fully expected a very biased political view from this particular show, given what I knew of Woody Guthrie: he was very pro-union, anti-capitalist- perhaps even a communist- he was anti-war (though he enlisted and fought in World War II)… I fully expected it to be didactic.

But, as the saying goes, you never know. So I went. And I’m glad I did.

The story is straight forward: Woody narrates key moments in his life- which had many hardships, including his mother’s serious mental illness that caused his family severe distress. The cast of four acts out several of his life’s scenes, covering a span of over 50 years.

Sure, there are conspicuous lines in the play about tearing down walls, protecting immigrant workers, fighting fascism and several direct shots at Republicans. So- yeah- they did cover politics from the left’s point of view.

But Woody- who we see get called a “Tom Joad Okie” by a New York radio host- just has a charming way about him as he calls out greed and injustice wherever he sees it. And he sees it everywhere.

But the reason I’m really glad I went?

 David Lutken as Woody Guthrie. photo: Carol Rosegg

David Lutken. He’s been playing Woody for- as he told me, “a long time,” and the audience actually experiences Woody Guthrie as if he was right there on stage.

Lutken gives a mesmerizing performance- it really seems he was born to play Guthrie in the same way Ben Platt seems born to play Evan Hansen on Broadway. Witnessing this is a rare gift for theatergoers!

He captures Woody’s folksy wit and prodding wisdom- as well as his earnest rebellious spirit. And he does it with a spot on singing voice and a perfect southwestern drawl…which makes sense because he said after the show that he grew up in Texas- not far from Guthrie’s Oklahoma home.

The credits show Lutken is one of the creators of the show as well as its Music Director.

He also plays several instruments and shows off some terrific dance moves, which earned him praise from Jim Naughton, who was also at opening night. Not bad when a 2-time Tony Award winner compliments your dancing!

David Lutken alone makes ‘Woody Sez’ worth seeing but the other performers- Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russel and Andy Teirstein- do a nice job each playing numerous roles… and numerous musical instruments, too.

Nick Corley co-created and also directed the show and I liked his approach to many of the scenes. One beef I had with the script: how the women- more specifically Woody’s relationship with them- is shown. Or, rather, isn’t shown. You really don’t get much of a sense how he interacted with the important women in his life- and that is disappointing.

The show is chock full of songs- about 50- but they are worked in smoothly and, even if you aren’t a real Guthrie fan, there are several recognizable songs. But the real showstopper was ‘The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done’- done at a lightning-fast pace. It drew the loudest applause of the night- justifiably so.

The scenic design, by Luke Cantarella, is simple… even plain… but it works- aided by Seth Reiser’s sharp lighting. However, a friend and I agreed they would have benefitted from more projections in the background.

‘Woody Sez’ at Westport Playhouse is a very pleasant surprise- and I give it 4 stars out of 5. It runs through January 20th.

Most people missed ‘Amazing Grace’ when it was on Broadway but this terrific musical will be at the Shubert in New Haven- January 19th through 21st only. It’s a gem- catch it!

And catch my reviews right here this time each week and on my Facebook page and website, Katz Reviews dot com, where you will find all my WICC 600 reviews.

This is Ed Katz talking theater for WICC 600!”