This show was made for you and me

People's Light presents 'Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie'

3 minute read
Show creator David M. Lutken brings Guthrie's music and politics into the 21st century. (Photo by Mark Garvin.)
Show creator David M. Lutken brings Guthrie's music and politics into the 21st century. (Photo by Mark Garvin.)

Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie, David M. Lutken and Nick Corley’s well-traveled biography of the father of folk, returns to People’s Light & Theatre Company, where it first played four summers ago. The revival may have been born of expediency — a previously slotted world premiere fell through, for reasons unannounced — but the result offers not a whiff of artistic laziness.​

If anything, the themes explored across the show’s 26 songs resonate more deeply today than ever. Those who know Guthrie (1912-1967) only through the refrain of his most popular ditty, “This Land is Your Land,” might be quick to write him off as a quaint artifact from a simpler era. But this troubadour’s music and life show a man well ahead of his time, fighting battles that continue to rage.

The personal is political

Lutken and Corley — who devised the program with Darcie Deaville, Helen J. Russell, and Andy Teirstein — eschew jukebox musical clichés, allowing Guthrie’s personal history to flow organically through his music.

The songs chronicle his hardscrabble early life, deeply held convictions, and uneasiness with popular success. They also paint a picture of the America he knew, from his Dust Bowl childhood through the worst of the Great Depression, into World War II and the Red Scare of the 1950s.

As an artist, Guthrie never shied away from taking political positions; in turn, much of his music is, sadly, timeless. “Deportees,” written in response to a 1948 California plane crash that killed 32 immigrant workers, could easily chronicle our current climate, where the U.S. government cruelly devalues migrant lives.

An alternate verse of “This Land” speaks of a high wall enclosing the country, hung with a sign that reads “private property.” Sound familiar?

The cast captures Guthrie's "no-frills, down-home style." (Photo by Mark Garvin.)
The cast captures Guthrie's "no-frills, down-home style." (Photo by Mark Garvin.)

More than music

Thankfully, Woody Sez never shies away from its subject’s radical streak. The performer/musicians — Lutken, Deaville, Mimi Bessette, and Spiff Wiegand — sing “The Internationale,” union songs, and fiery ballads interrogating injustice and prejudice.

Lutken, playing Guthrie, quotes at length from his columns written for People’s World, a Communist newspaper. The narrative shows how Guthrie’s righteous standards influenced every professional decision he made.

The storytelling falls short in certain areas. A legendary pacifist, Guthrie enlisted in World War II; his rationale boils down to a glib remark about “the difference between wanting something to stop and wanting to stop it.” Once he ships overseas, though, the anecdote becomes livelier, as Guthrie arranges the army’s first integrated hootenanny, blending the musical traditions of white and black soldiers.

Similarly, very little centers on his long battle with Huntington’s disease, the neurodegenerative condition that rendered him unable to sing, speak, or care for himself for much of his last decade. Lutken subtly communicates physical deterioration in the show’s final scenes, but the important topic remains largely unmined.

Narrative shortcomings largely disappear when the performers grab their instruments and take center stage. This talented quartet effortlessly captures the no-frills, down-home style Guthrie embodied and defined for generations to come.

Luke Cantarella’s rustic, wood-paneled set — dotted with more than two dozen guitars, fiddles, banjos, and autoharps —allows the company to change instruments easily. The mood often feels fun and freewheeling, without ever losing sight of the music’s greater message — just as Guthrie would have wanted it.

What, When, Where

Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie. By David M. Lutken with Nick Corley and Darcie Deaville, Helen J. Russell and Andy Teirstein, Corley directed. Through August 26, 2018, at People’s Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, Pennsylvania. (610) 644-3500 or​

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