Woody Sez – beautifully crafted blend of song and story

By Bob Behr
©2022 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie, Weston Theater Company’s final offering of the 2022 season, is a beautifully crafted blend of song, storytelling, and musicianship.

At Weston’s Walker Farm this week, the happy crowd was toe-tapping, clapping, and singing along to the songs of Woody Guthrie. It’s hard to imagine a better way to spend a Saturday night – or any night, for that matter.

More than just the father of Arlo Guthrie of “Alice’s Restaurant” fame, Woody Guthrie was the genius behind “This Land is Your Land,” “The Ballad of Tom Joad,” “So Long, It’s Been Good To Know Yuh,” “Deportees” and other folk classics. His songs have been interpreted by the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen, The Grateful Dead and Dar Williams.

The cast from left, David M. Lufken as Woody Guthrie, Spiff Wiegand, Mimi Bessette and Nyssa Grant. Photos by Rob Aft except feature photo by Hubert Schriebl

Devised by director Nick Corley and actor-singer David M. Lutken, who stars as Woody in this production, Woody Sez is deceptively simple. Four performers – Lutken, supported by Mimi Bessette, Nyssa Grant and Spiff Wiegand – stand against a backdrop of larger-than-life black and white photos. The stage is lined with more than 20 instruments, a stool, and a couple of benches. Following a birth-to-death timeline, Lutken and his associates spotlight several moments: Guthrie’s difficult childhood; his coming of age during the Depression years; his emergence as an anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, pro-labor singer-songwriter during WWII and beyond; his death from Huntington’s Disease.

It’s a serious portrait of one man’s life, a life that shines a light on American history. Luckily this is a musical, not a tome or a sermon. A line or two of narration leading into, or following up on, any one of Guthrie’s masterful songs, can say it all. It’s counter-intuitive but it works. And so, in Woody Sez, Guthrie’s story, told with old-timey restraint and brevity, packs a powerful emotional wallop.

For every minute of two hours (with an intermission) Lutken, Bessette, Grant, and Wiegand are on stage, each of them singing, dancing, and picking up instruments. Not just the expected fiddle, bass, banjo, mandolin and guitar. At one point Nyssa Grant, primarily a violinist, plays autoharp and Spiff Wiegand jumps in with spoons. And let’s not forget harmonica, dulcimer, penny whistle, viola, and more.

It’s all in service of the story to be told. Two of Woody Sez’s most gripping moments occur in the form of first-person accounts of the midwest dust storms of the 1930s. Wiegand, half-speaking and half-singing, tells of a hapless, slightly comical farmer heading west to escape the dust, with dry, dusty sound effects from a scratchy fiddle.

Then  Lutken takes on the voice of another farmer whose description of a storm on April 14, 1935 – “the worst of dust storms that ever filled the sky” – is bone-chilling, his voice strong, clear and real. And, accompanying him, at first a sad thin thread of violin, then the gathering sound of a louder and insistently louder thrumming guitar.

Not only does Lutken deliver a powerhouse of a performance, each member of his support team is chock full of talent too. Nyssa Grant has a wonderfully twangy country/folk sound to her voice and she uses it to great effect throughout, especially in the show’s periodic quotes from “The Ballad of Tom Joad.” Mimi Bessette’s tender rendition of “Curly Headed Baby” is heart-breaking. Then there’s that energetic jack-of-all-trades Spiff Wiegand. With his big grin, big voice, and apparent ability to play dozens of instruments, he’s the glue that binds.

Some say Woody Guthrie was one of the most influential songwriters of the 20th century, that his “This Land is Your Land” is an alternative national anthem, that his ideas still echo in the pleas of dispossessed people, protesters and pundits. Though some of Woody Sez is about politics, it’s not stridently political. Never once does Lutken and Corley’s script hit you over the head with “relevance” or contemporary comparisons. But how can we not make the connection when Guthrie sings of an overnight dust storm that wipes out communities and people’s livelihood, or the urgency of fighting fascism, or the ineffectiveness and hypocrisy of some politicians?

Guthie’s songs gave hope and provoked new awareness during tough times, and they have the power to reach audiences today too, regardless of political persuasion. As Bob Dylan said, “You could listen to Woody Guthrie’s songs and actually learn how to live.”

As a special bonus for theater goers and the wider community, Weston Theater Company invites music lovers of all ages to join the cast of Woody Sez for a hootenanny after each Sunday’s performance (Oct. 9, 16 and 23 around 5:15 p.m.). If it’s a nice day, the show’s cast will be outside Walker Farm singing and playing their instruments. If it’s cold or rainy, you’ll find them in the lobby. No ticket purchase necessary. And, don’t forget to bring any and all stringed instruments, harmonicas, spoons and noise makers.

Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie plays at Walker Farm, 705 Main St., in Weston. Evening performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Matinee performances on Saturday and Sunday. Student tickets are $25. Adult tickets range from $50 to $74. This is also a Student Matinee production. Teachers and schools can learn more about participating by clicking here.   Tickets are available online by clicking here and by calling the Weston Box Office at 802-824-5288.

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About the Author: Andover resident Bob Behr is a retired English teacher and non-profit fundraiser. He has written about theater, food and local culture for community newspapers in Philadelphia and Vermont.

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