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A CurtainUp London London Review
Woody Sez

There is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those willing to listen. — John Steinbeck
Woody Sez
David M Lutken as Woody (Photo: Wendy Mutz)
Four musicians, playing many more instruments and each singing, bring this folk musical based on the life of the legendary folk musician Woody Guthrie to the Arts Theatre in London for three months following tours in the United States and an outing at the Edinburgh Festival in 2007. Inspiration to Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton and Bruce Springsteen, Guthrie was known as the Dustbowl Troubadour because he wrote songs in the 1930s about the Great Depression and the drought and dust storms causing poverty and migration. Guthrie travelled with these migrating workers in search of work and a new life. His music was inspired by traditional folk music and blues and his tunes are still sung today.

The musical is rich in biographical detail recording that Woody was born in Okemah, Okfuskee County, Oklahoma and named after Woodrow Wilson the then Democratic Party Governor of New Jersey. Woody's mother suffered from the genetic, neurological disorder Huntington's Disease which he inherited.

Devised by performer David Lutken and director Nick Corley, the songs lend themselves to a lucid story because they describe Guthrie's reactions to his life and times. We hear that when working for radio station in New York he was told to "sing something nice" instead of the political lyrics he had written. Lutken talks us through most of the often jokey narrative playing a guitar with the label "This Machine Kills Fascists" as Woody himself did.

Darcie Deaville plays mandolin and fiddle as well as singing and Helen Jane Russell is most often seen on the double bass although they both play several other instruments. Curly haired Andy Teirstein plays the violin, guitar but his accomplished rendering on the spoons proves very popular with the audience.

Some of the best known songs — "This Land Is Your Land", "This Train Is Bound for Glory" and "Pastures of Plenty" were his own compositions but may have used tunes based on negro spirituals. Guthrie also contributed to the archive of American folk song with recordings of other people's songs he made in the early 1940s ensuring this heritage was available in perpetuity.

The show doesn't just present Guthrie's songs but his political philosophy which was that of a man committed to justice and human rights. "I Ain't Got No Home" from Darcie and David leaves us in doubt as to who the culprit is when the words tell us, "Mr Banker came and took our farm away." The blend of meaningful words and toe tapping tunes, allow the exciting instrumentals we associate with blue grass music to drive the music overflows with feel good factor. Andy's rendition of "Jackhammer John" is nothing less than rousing. There is little choreography apart from David's heel shuffle and action as instruments are exchanged but somehow the visuals do not tire with a backdrop of photographs of Woody and his family and wooden crates to hold the spare musical instruments.

Woody Sez may take a while for word of mouth to make sure it reaches its audience: as people who love folk music do not usually flock to West End musicals but to concerts and pubs and festivals. However if they miss Woody Sez they will be missing one of the best and friendliest celebrations of this type of music, beautifully sung and expertly played.

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Woody Sez
Devised by David M Lutken and Nick Corley
Directed by Nick Corley

Starring: David M Lutken, Darcie Deaville, Helen J Russell, Andy Teirstein
Set by Luke Cantarella
Costumes designed by Jeffrey Meek
Lighting: Matt Frey
Running time: Two hours 15 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7907 7092
Booking to 2nd April 2011
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 18th January 2011 performance at The Arts Theatre, 6-7 Great Newport street, London WC2 7JB (Tube: Leicester Square)

Musical Numbers
Act One
  • This Train is Bound for Glory
  • Why Do You Stand There in the Rain
  • Nickel, Nickel
  • This Land is Your Land
  • The Ballad of Tom Joad
  • Gypsy Davey
  • Jackhammer John
  • I Ride An Old Paint
  • Curly Headed Baby
  • Mule Skinner Blues
  • Oklahoma Hills
  • So Long, It's Been Good to Know Ya
  • Talkin' Dust Bowl
  • This Train is Bound for Glory
  • Do Re Mi
  • Jolly Banker
  • The Internationale
  • I've Got to Know
Act Two
  • I Ain't Got No Home
  • I Ride An Old Paint
  • Columbus Stockade
  • Going Down that Road Feeling Bad
  • Pastures of Plenty
  • Groundhog
  • Vigilante Man
  • Union Maid
  • Down By The Riverside
  • Sinking of the Reuben James
  • Talking Merchant Marine
  • Biggest Thing Man Has Ever Done
  • Riding in My Car
  • Them Old Cottonfields Back Home
  • This Land is Your Land
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