The show: "Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie" at Hartford's TheaterWorks.
What makes it special?: Presentation of musical that's been popular at stages across the country and London.
First impressions: To those who know Woody Guthrie as simply the guy who wrote "This Land Is Your Land" and the dad of Arlo Guthrie, this bio-tale is a revelation of the man's committed life and his breadth of music. To those who are familiar with the troubadour laureate, it's a fitting celebration of the power of song in not only lifting spirits, but as a tool for public awareness.
What's it about?: Show tells of the life of populist singer-songwriter, beginning with his dirt-poor boyhood in Oklahoma into the 1920s. But poverty was just a part of his difficult childhood. His mother was an emotionally disturbed woman who was eventually institutionalized. In his teens, he left home and traveled, singing for his supper along less-traveled roads around the country.
But it wasn't until the1930s that in his hobo travels he found his own "voice," chronicling the spirit, soul and sadness of poor, working-class Americans as they struggled with the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, relocation to California, and their battles with factory owners, agri-business and union busters. It also relates Guthrie's anti-Fascist turn during World War II and his decline due to Huntington's disease that eventually took his life in 1967.
Nick Corley directs this well-traveled show and its seasoned performers with great care, perspective and nuance, perfectly pitched for the intimate space of TheaterWorks 200-seat venue.
The stirring work is devised by Corley and David M. Lutken with Darcie Deaville, Helen J. Russell and Andy Teirstein. Russell is also featured in this production's cast and looks like the real deal, perfect casting for a remake of "The Grapes of Wrath" and a singer of quiet authenticity.
Also in this production are David Finch and Leenya Rideout, both gifted and versatile performers, who bring humor, heartbreak and dignity to their numbers. The three performers play multiple roles in the busy narrative that sometimes gives just the briefest attention to some significant biographical; milestones (like Guthrie's own wives and children).
If the show isn't as focused as the outstanding 1976 film, "Bound for Glory" (which starred David Carradine), it serves like a folk song to Guthrie's own life, giving the broad strokes, emotional resonance and multiple choruses sketching the essence of a great sweep of a life.
And as Woody?: Lutken is outstanding as Guthrie, gracefully leading the audiences into the songwriter's life and music — both as his own narrator and participant. The lean and angular actor has a friendly easy-going attitude that is warmly irresistible, but he also handles the tender scenes, humorous jabs and political points equally well, without coming across as preachy or maudlin: an impressive feat.
And the music?: The cast presents more than two dozen songs (many familiar titles as well as some forgotten gems) performing on a wide variety of instruments: guitar, bass, banjo, recorder, fiddle, dulcimer, harmonica, mandolin, even a jaw harp. It's the type of music I don't cotton to immediately, but once surrounded by the singing and the sincerity, it's hard to resist. The songs and performances are beautiful, inspiring and even rousing. (When I left the theater I wanted to look for my union label — or at least sign a petition.)
Who will like it?: Fans of American roots music. Union members. Socially conscious folks.
Who won't?: Bankers. One percenters. Some Republicans.
For the kids?: Kids will respond to the tuneful music and the rebel spirit. The melodic history lesson is just a bonus.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: I hear America singing in a joyous, bittersweet celebration of America's vox populi legend.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: Where have all the folk heroes gone with something socially relevant to say in their art? Yes, there's Dylan, Springsteen, Mellencamp and others, but in the grand scheme of musical life, it's a small slice of American pie.
The basics: The show plays at the theater at 233 Pearl St. in downtown Hartford through Sept. 14. Running time is 2 hours and 5 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets are $50 to $65, with discounts. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 78:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and select weekend matinees at 2:30 p.m. There is a Wednesday matinee at Sept. 10 at 11 a.m, There is an all free student matinee on Aug. 23 at 2:30 p.m.
A free "hootenanny" will be held following Sunday matinee performances at approximately 4:45 p.m. (It is not necessary to attend the show.) Information at 860-0527-7838 and www.theaterworkshartford.org.