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In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

David Lutken stars as Woody Guthrie in the Rep's production of "Woody Sez." (PHOTO: Roger Mastroianni)

The charm of Guthrie's music key to Rep's "Woody Sez"

Only minutes into the production of "Woody Sez," words come from Woody Guthrie himself that mean everything in his world and maybe should mean everything to all of us.

"Of all the places I've been and all the people I've seen, I know more about those places from the songs they sing than all the words they say."

And that is the charm of the production, which opened on a freezing Sunday night in the Stackner Cabaret of the Milwaukee Rep.

In the end, after all the hootin', hollerin', political wailin' and gnashin' of teeth, Woody Guthrie left us with music. Simple music. Music with words that meant something to him and mean something to all of us. Pretty much the kind of iconoclastic music that we don't hear much of anymore.

For Woody, music was his weapon of choice in his war against politicians and bankers, the two biggest evils in his tunnel vision of the world. Clearly, the world of his time was much more complex, but he was a simple man with a simple view of the way things ought to be.

In today's world, Guthrie's rigid idealism and the intolerance for anything that didn't agree with his vision seems almost anachronistic. There are no Woody Guthries around anymore, carrying a guitar around the country trying to influence the world around him.

And that's another part of why this production, co-conceived by star David Lutken, is such an enjoyable night of music and theater.

The focus is less on the personal Woody and more on the singer/songwriter. And make no mistake about it, this man could write and sing.

I am one of those in this country who think we should junk "The Star-Spangled Banner" as our national anthem and replace it with "This Land Is Your Land." That song, which Guthrie wrote as an almost angry reply to the constant exposure of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," captures all that is best and hopeful about this country.

In the original lyrics that he wrote in a New York hotel room in 1940, he makes very clear what it is we'd like to think about our country:

"When the sun come shining, then I was strolling
In wheat fields waving and dust clouds rolling;
The voice was chanting as the fog was lifting:
God blessed America for me."

Later, that last line was gone and replaced with "This land was made for you and me," but I'd like to see the original come back.

This journey with Woody, which is playing for the next 10 weeks at the Stackner, is made possible by the comfort and talent of four players, led by Lutken who cuts the same angular, slightly wobbly image as Guthrie himself.

He started this show in 2007 and spent a lot of time in Europe before finally coming to America and getting a slew of awards wherever it was performed.

However many times this cast has done this show, it is obvious they are comfortable with each other, the music, the instruments and the audience. There is an intimacy to this production that is rarely achieved in the world of theater. In this show, you feel like it could be taking place in your living room or backyard on a summer evening.

Lutken is an able musician with his guitar and harp, and the rest of the cast man instruments that range from a Jew's harp to a standup bass that towers over everyone on stage.

Leenya Rideout is probably the sexiest mandolin/fiddle/guitar player you've ever seen. Her voice is both earthy and sultry, and she has a sense of humor that is infectious.

Helen Jean Russell, who plays that big bass, has a voice that can carry you to the clouds, as if the angels asked you to go for a ride. Her melancholy moments as Woody's sad and dying mother are moving.

David Finch, who seems to be able to play anything you put in his hands or mouth, is charming and funny. He almost seems like the sense of humanity that some people think was missing from Guthrie's life.

This is not the story of the life of Woody Guthrie, since the Woody we see is truly a single-dimension. It ignores his devils and his personal struggles, but that's okay. We aren't here to dissect his life and causes. We are here to enjoy his music.

The Stackner is becoming the place to see these productions – shall we call them bio-musicals – that are so very enjoyable. We've seen Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Janis Joplin and now an outstanding Woody Guthrie. I don't know where Mark Clements, artistic director of the Rep, is going next, but I can't help but wonder if Ray Charles is far behind.

"Woody Sez" runs through March 9, and ticket and showtime information is available at


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