David Lutken’s getting comfortable in Connecticut, with some characters who caused some discomfort in their time, but who also brought much enjoyment.
From Jan. 9 to 20, Lutken is the acerbic activist songwriter Woody Guthrie in “Woody Sez” at Westport Country Playhouse. This is the show that was a smash at TheaterWorks three years ago. Lutken devised the show with the encouragement of Guthrie’s manager, Harold Leventhal.
In April, Lutken will open the Goodspeed Opera House’s 2018 season as the politically outspoken “cowboy philosopher” Will Rogers in “The Will Rogers Follies.”
I”ve always pointed toward folks like that,” Lutken says in a phone interview in November. “I began to learn Woody Guthrie songs when I was 2 or 3 years old, growing up in Texas.”
Guthrie’s populist anthems include “This Land Is Your Land,” “Talking Dust Bowl Blue” and “So Long, It’s Been Good To Know You.”
Lutken was also aware of Rogers, the vaudeville lasso-twirler known for his down-home observations on politics and society, from an early age: “Everything in Texas was named after him.” The Will Rogers Memorial Center was built in Fort Worth in 1936, a year after Rogers died in a plane crash while visiting Alaska with famous aviator Wiley Post.
“Woody Guthrie was a great admirer of Will Rogers,” Lutken says. “He named his first son William Rogers Guthrie. Rogers was definitely a left-leaning Democrat, though Woody Guthrie was further left than that. They were both from Oklahoma. They both had newspaper columns: Will Rogers called his ‘Will Rogers Says,’ and Woody Guthrie called his ‘Woody Sez.’ He wrote harder stuff than Will Rogers.”
The actor sees similarities between the shows as well — in both, “the main character spends most of his time speaking directly to the audience.”
Lutken’s has played both of these cultural icons for years. He understudied the title role in the original Broadway production of “Will Rogers Follies” directed by Tommy Tune in the early 1990s and since then has starred in numerous regional productions of the musical.
Lutken created “Woody Sez” a decade ago. The show has been seen all around the United States, from Seattle to Boston, and overseas as well. Lutken starred in the vast majority of those productions.
“Woody Sez” premiered at Scotland’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2007. “I had gone to acting school in London,” Lutken says, “and I just knew it would be popular there. It’s interesting to me — Woody Guthrie’s popularity on both sides of the ocean. Part of the reason I began the show in Scotland is that I knew people loved him there.”
The success of “Woody Sez” at Hartford’s TheaterWorks in 2014 was “as big a surprise to me as to anyone else,” Lutken says. He may be acting modest, as extending the run of this crowd-pleasing show due to popular demand has happened at other theaters as well. It happened just a few months ago when the New York run of “Woody Sez” was extended at the Irish Repertory Theatre.
Does Lutken consider “Woody Sez” to be one long tour or a series of loosely related separate productions?
“If you can figure that out, you are my new manager,” he responds with a folksy chuckle. “Many, many people have done the show, but all the productions are based on our original work in Edinburgh. They’ve had the same director, Nick Corley. We have been trying to keep the family together.”
The show is credited as devised by Lutken and Corley with the other original cast members Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell and Andy Teirstein. The Westport cast consists of Lutken, David Finch, Katie Barton and Leenya Rideout.
The Westport Country Playhouse booking came about in much the same way that the TheaterWorks one did; Lutken knew the artistic directors of the theater from doing a show with them years earlier.
“I knew Rob Ruggiero from doing ‘Big River’ at the Goodspeed,” Lutken says of the TheaterWorks engagement.
“Mark Lamos and I worked together for the Benjamin Britten opera ‘Paul Bunyan’ at Lincoln Center. We’ve been looking for an opportunity to do ‘Woody Sez’ at his theater for quite a while. Westport Country Playhouse is quite the feather in our ‘Woody Sez’ cap.”
How does he feel about doing “Woody Sez” in wintertime rather than the spring?
“I don’t think the weather has much to do with it,” Lutken says, “but we do have the most requests to do it in the fall or spring. We’ve done it outside when it was 104 degrees, and in Wisconsin during the polar vortex.”
Whatever the temperature, he adds, “the show plays differently every night. It’s great fun to adapt it to different theaters.” One way he does that is to hold old-fashioned “hootenannies” at the theaters where “Woody Sez” plays, with the cast leading a musical jam session where anyone can bring an instrument and join in. In the cast of Westport, the hootenanny already happened in December because a time couldn’t be found during the show’s limited two-week run. Lutken hopes to hold hootenannies during the Goodspeed run of “Will Rogers Follies” in the spring. “I do it no matter what show I’m doing,” he says.
Changing times also cause changing reactions to “Woody Sez.” When the show was at the Seattle Repertory Theatre in January of 2017 — the time of Donald Trump’s inauguration — Lutken paraphrased a Guthrie expression about how fences are unnecessary if a country belongs to everyone in it.
“I changed the word ‘fence’ to ‘wall.’ The reaction was so big it stopped the show every time.”
WOODY SEZ plays Jan. 9 to 20 at Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Ct., Westport. Performances are Tuesday at 7 p.m.; Wednesday at 2 and 7 p.m.; Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m.; and Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m. Tickets are $35 to $50. 888-927-7529 and westportplayhouse.org.