From January to April 2011, Leicester Square’s Arts Theatre plays host to the new country musical Woody Sez. Co-devised by David M Lutken with Nick Corley, this modest show illustrates the life and music of one Woody Guthrie, American folk legend and core influence to some of the greatest musicians known today.
A biographical exploration of repression, this two hour performance examines the harrowing tales of an almost impossible life, with such sensitivity that audience empathy is an inevitable bi-product. Admittedly I was previously oblivious to not only the music, but also the man himself, and it was with some quiet anticipation that I attended the press night last night; after all, when exploring such a singular character, the potential of narrowing down your audience is always an issue. However, these qualms were instantly nullified; this was not the story of one man – this was the story of a nation, suffering under the devastating hardships of the Great Depression.
Woody Sez is a refreshing classic of a musical, providing the much needed break from the increasingly undemanding ‘pop’ musical culture. Not only does it have some contagiously toe-tapping songs and unnerving theatrical talent, it also reveals a compelling and challenging storyline, with an oh-so-relevant social message that, in today’s climate, can’t be ignored.
The subtle opening of the show is one of undeniable freshness. With an almost show-and-tell display of musical flair, the small cast of four immediately put the auditorium at ease, breaking down all walls in a pursuit of audience involvement, without that clichéd pantomimic feel. Instantly, you are aware of the true sense of enjoyment the cast experience as they continuously play Guthrie’s songs, and whether you know them or not is no longer an issue; you want to become a part of this story.
With utterly topical songs such as ‘I’m a Jolly Banker’, the comedic parody is prominent. Although darker issues, such as the devastating effects of Huntington’s disease and the incomparable hardships of the Great Depression, are explored, any potential heaviness that could encumber the piece is almost immediately lightened by the quirky nature.
The story in itself is not a difficult one to follow: however, it did seem that Act II somewhat brushed over the significant issues of the time, including that of World War Two. This rush was a slight disappointment, especially after the attention and detail that created Act I, with its tight-knit story. However, the consistency of the cast was undeniable, with an abundance of musical talent, spanning from the cello to the elastic band, the voice to the spoons. David M Lutken, who not only wrote the show, directed the music and took on the role of Woody Guthrie himself, had that instant likeability that all West End leads crave; his humble nature was only exemplified by his ‘cheeky-chappy’ quality and the strong support of the three remaining cast members.
This show, in all its pureness, was an utter tribute to an apparent legend; indeed, it is so well done that it is carried without the burden of excessive sets or costumes. With the music speaking for itself the show and its creators succeed in paying such huge respect to Woody Guthrie and, although the melodies and nature of some of the songs will not be to every ones taste, the implications behind them cannot be ignored. What was apparent, whether a Woody fan or not, was the sheer enjoyment and appreciation of a standing ovation.