"Woody Sez," the show at Northlight Theatre about the folksy radical always "singing for the plain folks and getting in trouble with the rich folks," is neither a big, immediately compelling production nor a masterpiece of spare dramaturgical construction. It's a warm-centered, conventionally styled excursion through the life and times of Woodrow Wilson Guthrie of Okemah, Okla., beginning with his birth in 1912 and peppered with skillful live performances of his music, some 30 songs in all played by a four-piece band of musicians who also double as the acting company. It follows the well-worn path of the affectionate little 90-minute bio-revue, even down to the still photos of Guthrie and iconic images of his hardscrabble, Dust-Bowl times on a set that could have been designed for a one-night concert.
Affability aside, this isn't an especially well-written or revealing piece; it switches from Woody saying things himself to others telling the story about Woody without much rhyme or reason. It could use more life and humor — vivacity and wit both being very much a part of Guthrie's message, even if he saw and lived some Dust Bowl moments that would have shocked John Steinbeck. And, frankly, it could also linger more in Guthrie's darker moments, rather than trying to plow through his whole life in 90 minutes. But "Woody Sez" has at least two aces in its deck. One, of course, is Guthrie's music, which is a huge pleasure to hear en masse, especially when played and sung at this level, and the other is the truly formidable central performance by David M. Lutken, which is not only a rich musical exploration of the Guthrie oeuvre but a very fine piece of acting. You should see and hear Lutken perform Guthrie's "Dust Storm Disaster," a great howl of horror at what had come to pass. It will pull you up in your seat.
Lutken, who conceived the piece along with Nick Corley and provides his own musical direction, does not have a lot to play against. Any show (and "Woody Sez" really is the Skokie stop of an internationally touring production, which already has played London, the Boston area, Florida and the Adirondacks, among other locales) that asks actors to play this number of musical instruments requires compromise, and so it plays out here. Although Darcie Deaville, David Finch and Helen Jean Russell are fine folk musicians, they don't really have theatrical characters that emerge sufficiently as antagonists to Guthrie to make this show really land with some force. Nonetheless, Lutken not only looks and sounds remarkably like Guthrie, he understands that a show not only requires him to perform Guthrie's songs (including such famous pieces as "This Train Is Bound for Glory" and, of course, "This Land Is Your Land") with full integrity but to serve as a storyteller pulling the audience through his life. He pulls all that off remarkably well, given that he did not have a whole lot of story with which to work. The best moment of the evening comes when we learn of the personal tragedy that afflicted Guthrie: Lutken reaches deep within himself to evoke a time of great anguish seemingly out of nowhere, stilling the theater. It's a very moving moment, epitomizing the Guthrie truism that "everything we do is aimed right at going on." Lutken does it all by himself.
To hear of his life and listen to his songs in a political season is, of course, to wonder where his type, the crusading, rural, populist left-winger from a small Oklahoma town, went. Democrats would say those folks were co-opted by fear-mongering and cynicism. Republicans would say the Democrats pushed them away. Maybe numerous Guthrie heirs (beyond Arlo) are playing away out there, struggling for airplay in the new world of big-media country. Or maybe Guthrie was always an individual, which is certainly how he comes across at Northlight, where Lutken evokes his life and music in what clearly is a well-honed labor of love.
For its part, Northlight is registering voters in the lobby.
When: Through Oct. 21
Where: North Shore Center for the Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $25-73 at 847-673-6300 or northlight.orgCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times