Review: "Woody Sez" at the Westport Country Playhouse

Tara Kennedy

  • OnStage Chief Connecticut Critic / Connecticut Critics Circle

This land is your land, this land is my land; from California to the New York island…

You can finish the words, right? Every school child can sing the words to at least the chorus of the iconic ballad, “This Land is Your Land,” an American anthem, serving as a reminder that the United States is great and wide and it belongs to all of us.  But how much do you know about the man who wrote the song? Well, lucky for you, Westport Country Playhouse is offering a winter musical treat that relates the life and songs of Woody Guthrie, the musical influence of many folk artists from Bob Dylan to Jeff Tweedy of Wilco.

Guthrie’s songs are stories themselves, so a musical review is a perfect fit for telling the tale of the hobo poet from Oklahoma. Dubbed the Voice of the Great Depression, Guthrie’s works span beyond music; he was also a prolific writer, artist, and activist. This two-hour show does a very good job telling about all aspects of the musician’s life from his early childhood growing up in Okemah, Oklahoma to his time as a radio performer in California and New York to his time traveling the world in the Merchant Marines in World War II. He played for people in the streets, in saloons, on ships, anywhere where he could. His goal was simple: write his songs, speak his truth, and spread the stories of the voiceless American people.  

The director and deviser – David M. Lutken who portrays the charismatic Guthrie in the show – has cast his musical show brilliantly. The performers – Katie Barton, David Finch, Leenya Rideout – play a multitude of instruments between them: guitar, ukulele, fiddle, autoharp, mandolin, and even silverware. They play with humor (there’s trick playing and fiddle duels), gusto, and tenderness. Beyond their musicianship, these are adept actors who play many roles – family, friends, lovers, and enemies. The emotions of those who lived through the Dust Bowl show on the faces as they perform: joy, heartbreak, frustration, and humor.

The quartet of talented performers light up the stage with their versatile musicianship, poignant storytelling, and their sheer exuberance; they are all having a grand time, and the audience joined right in, tapping feet, clapping hands, and singing along (me included).  It feels like a true hootenanny, which is the intention.  If you’re looking for something to take the winter chill off this January, “Woody Sez” at Westport Country Playhouse is an excellent way to fend off the cold.      

Photo: L-R:  Katie Barton, David Finch, David M. Lutken (as Woody Guthrie), and Leenya Rideout  in “Woody Sez:  The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie”at Westport Country Playhouse, now playing through January 20. (203) 227-4177. Photo by Peter Chenot