A touring revue on American singer/songwriter Woody Guthrie (1912-67), WOODY SEZ—on the road for seven years and now on stage at People’s Light & Theatre Company in Malvern—is an eminently likeable concert biography for fans of the respected folk musician and activist for the disenfranchised. Featuring 27 of Guthrie’s most famous songs (including his populist American anthem “This Land Is Your Land”) interspersed with snippets of his life story and folk wisdom, the show traces the highlights and low points of his times, from his tragic impoverished childhood in Oklahoma, to his equally desperate itinerant youth during the Dust Bowl and Depression, to his growing fame and impact on such folk-rockers of the ‘60s as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and son Arlo Guthrie, to his untimely death from Huntington’s Chorea, the degenerative hereditary disease that also killed his mother.
The amiable four-member ensemble (Andy Teirstein, Helen J. Russell, Darcie Deaville, and David M. Lutken, who stars as Guthrie, provides the musical direction, and co-conceived the show with director Nick Corley) does double duty, both performing the songs on an array of fifteen instruments and delivering the simple story-telling script in country twang. The emphasis is clearly on the music, at which the supporting cast is admirably adept, though Lutken, as the featured player, brings more theatrical skill and empathy to his role, in addition to his outstanding musical and vocal abilities. Backed by photos of the man and the most important images of his era, and lit with evocative colors and focused spotlights (by Christopher Hallenbeck), the mostly bare-stage production employs box crates and wooden stools to evoke the rampant poverty that Guthrie battled through his early life and protested through his music and writings (scenic design by Luke Hegel-Cantarella), while the costumes (by Jeffrey Meek) recreate the unassuming casual clothes of the period.
Although there’s nothing particularly surprising in the format of WOODY SEZ, and often the paean to Guthrie borders on hero worship, minimizing some of the most obvious contradictions of the man (an advocate for humanity who continually took to the road, repeatedly leaving his four wives and eight children; who achieved prosperity, popularity, and critical acclaim, but always affected the role of the outsider; who openly criticized New York but lived and thrived there, returned to and died there), the sympathetic production provides a toe-tapping, foot-stomping, crowd-pleasing hootenanny of a tribute to an American icon. [Leonard C. Haas Stage, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, PA] May 7-25, 2014, www.peopleslight.org.