It’s Folk Night all this month around the figurative fire at Camp Theater J, and all that’s missing are the s’mores. Enlivened by the tunes of the great troubadour of America’s disenfranchised, Woody Guthrie, and the buoying talents of four actor-singers, the company’s space in the D.C. Jewish Community Center requires as accompaniment only the percussion of tapping feet.
“Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie” is an amiable 90 minutes of melodies that Guthrie wrote and performed over the course of an activist career: “Union Maid,” “Sinking of the Reuben James,” “Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done,” and of course, “This Land Is Your Land” are among the nearly 30 songs performed by a quartet of crooning musicians, who frequently pick up and lay aside the wide assortment of guitars, banjos, basses, violins and autoharps displayed across the Goldman Theater stage.
The musicianship is first-class: Led by the nimble strumming of David M. Lutken, who devised the show with director Nick Corley and plays the role of Guthrie, the cast effortlessly adapts to the rousing spirit of the songwriter’s heartland balladeering and protest music. If you’re less than besotted by paeans to the proletariat or by theme songs of the left —the cast indulges in a harmonious rendition of the bracing socialist anthem “The Internationale” — you might not want to aggravate the fresh wounds of the election cycle just completed with the lyrics of this particular entertainment. (Lutken fashions a version of “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh” as a sort of farewell to Republican designs this year on the presidency.
As presented here, though, Guthrie’s music is more seductive than antagonistic, often managing to express with dry-eyed humor the bitter experiences of the poor. In the Dust Bowl ditty “Do Re Mi,” he finds wry musical language for his disgust at monetary barriers established to keep destitute Depression-era travelers from entering the Golden State: “California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see,” Lutken as Guthrie sings. “But believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot / If you ain’t got the do re mi.”
His cast mates, Darcie Deaville, Helen Russell and David Finch — the last of whom will be replaced by Andy Teirstein after Sunday — stirringly fill out the harmonies and assist in recounting the story of Guthrie’s early life in Oklahoma, his rise as a folk singer on radio and his emergence as a political voice on the left. The tall, lean Lutken looks enough like the Guthrie pictured in black-and-white photos hung over the stage to provide a convincing impression, one that’s aided further by his charmingly twangy locutions.
The topical similarities of some of the songs do provoke a few yawns, but “Woody Sez” says good night well before its welcome is worn out. It’s pleasant to be reminded that once upon a time in America, raising one’s voice in dissent could make for some beautiful music.
devised by David M. Lutken with
Nick Corley. Directed by Corley. Set, Luke Hegel-Cantarella; lighting, Garth Dolan; costumes, Jeffrey Meek. About 90 minutes. Through Dec. 2 at
D.C. Jewish Community Center,
1529 16th St. NW. Visit www.theaterj.org or call 800-494-TIXS.