'How could a show about Woody Guthrie go wrong at a theater called 'the People's Light?' "
Performer and show cocreator David M. Lutken posed that question in his slow drawl as part of the preshow warm-up for Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie.
Now imagine that sentence again. Hear it as coming from a man smart enough to want to keep you guessing about his intelligence. Slow down the cadence of words to a near halt at the word "wrong." Leave the listener (that's you) hanging on the word "at," before speeding up until the implied conclusion: There is no way a biopic about the union and peace activist could go wrong at a playhouse with collectivist roots.
At least not on Mother's Day eve, when the crowd overflowed with fans of Guthrie's music, basking in the warmth of recognition, then singing along as the quartet on stage started each tune.
The four performers created the show in 2007 and have since toured it worldwide. Lutken plays Guthrie, Andy Teirstein appears as Guthrie's friends and fellow musicians Will Geer and Pete Seeger (among others), and Darcie Deaville and Helen Russell are Guthrie's sister, mother, wives, children, fellow traveling hobos, and associated acts, such as Maxine "Lefty Lou" Crissman.
Sparse bits of narrative culled from Guthrie's writings and autobiography plus a few reenactments form the thin story line. Otherwise, and thankfully so, this feels like a concert. The song list includes all the familiar hits ("This Land Is Your Land," "The Ballad of Tom Joad"), which the cast powers through with dextrous musicianship on guitar, double bass, banjo, violin, autoharp, and even spoons. The audience responded enthusiastically, the performers improvised in turn and yielded one of the foot-stompingest nights of theater I've experienced in a long time (at least since Delaware Theatre Company's recent Ain't Misbehavin').
Luke Hegel-Cantarella's set hangs enlarged photos from the ceiling over raised platforms and instrument stands. Coupled with the direct-address style, Woody Sez could turn into a museum piece, but for the rousing musical performances that keep it lively.
Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie
Through May 25 at People's Light and Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Rd, Malvern
Tickets: $26-$46. Information: 610-644-3500 or www.peopleslight.org