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Theater reviews: Woody Sez, Spring Awakening

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Named after the 28th American president before he was elected later in 1912, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was the Okie son of two blue-dog Democrats, coming to maturity at a time when Dustbowl Oklahoma was becoming the spiritual Jerusalem of the nation's dispossessed. The term Okie widened to embrace all the migrant workers who streamed westward during the Great Depression in search of work. Woody Guthrie was swept up into that wave while he polished his skills as a songwriter and a folksinger, ultimately becoming the troubadour voice of those Okies.

So it isn't too shabby that Charlotte is the second U.S. city to see a production of David M. Lutken's Woody Sez -- not when you consider that Oklahoma City was the first. Directed and co-"devised" by Nick Corley, Woody is a charmingly ramblin' tribute to a ramblin' folk hero. Without stepping on the point too heavily, Lutken plus a trio of nicely homespun multi-instrumentalists gradually convince us that Woody earned the right to write "This Land Is Your Land" by living with the people through hard times all across the country, sharing their campfires, their sufferings, and their aspirations while learning their heart.

Although Lutken & Co. squeeze in nearly 30 songs into 82-plus minutes, there is never a sense of rushing through the songlist and plenty of time for Lutken to unwind and acquaint us with Woody. (Extra helpings for those who arrive early -- plus an after-show hootenanny after Sunday matinees.) Onstage at Booth Playhouse, Lutken slips nonchalantly into character, running the gamut from sawdust folksiness to Communist orthodoxy to fiery patriotism, shooting most of his shafts against Republicans but aiming a barb or two against Dems as well.

Photos of Woody are discreetly posted on Luke Cantarella's dustbowl-themed set, and there's a modicum of physical resemblance between Woody and the man playing him. Lutken's voice and his battered guitar incline more toward Willie Nelson than Guthrie, so newcomers to the work will still be impressed when they return home with a thirst to sample more of Woody's approximately 1,000 songs online. Guthrie's voice was heard often on the air during the radio days and it certainly can't be counted worse than his disciple Bob Dylan's. The albums for children get their charm partly from the ordinariness of Guthrie's voice and delivery.

Guthrie didn't imbue his delivery with nearly as much emotion or drama as we find in Dylan -- or Lutken. Yet even as he takes it up a few notches, bringing a purposeful anger to the surface, the transition between Lutken's intro to "Sinking of the Reuben James" and his delivery is as smooth as Woody's. Another dramatic high point is "Pastures of Plenty," where Lutken as Woody can pinpoint finding his voice.

The anthemic "This Land Is Your Land" and "This Train Is Bound for Glory" are reprised often enough to remind us of Woody's hobo ramblin'. But there are also oases of satirical comedy: "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh," aimed at the patron saint of the Hoovervilles; "Do Re Mi," aimed at the California border patrol; and "Jolly Banker," aimed at tone-deaf politicians of both parties, with a special resonance for the BofA benefactors who gave us the Booth and Founders Hall.

Between songs, we get autobiographical tidbits from Woody about his childhood, his travels, his radio and recording gigs, and his occasional short-lived dalliances with commercialism. Lutken's backup trio, all of whom play at least four instruments, are adept enough at acting to step into cameo roles along the way. Darcie Deaville is Lefty Lou before leading the ensemble in singing "Union Maid," Helen J. Russell sings "Gypsy Davey" as Woody's mom, and Andy Teirstein -- who plays eight different instruments, including spoons -- portrays a nervous radio station manager and Guthrie sidekick Pete Seeger.

Much of what Woody reveals about his childhood is clouded by the harrowing consequences of his mother's affliction with Huntington's chorea. It is a horrific hereditary disease that subjects its sufferers to involuntary spasms, prompts them to bizarre actions, torments them with delusions, and eventually renders them speechless. So Woody was helplessly hospitalized during the late stages of his disease as his mother had before him. With three able actors onstage with Lutken, they can take over the narrative toward the very end.

Eyes were popping and jaws were dropping last Tuesday night as Spring Awakening, winner of eight Tony Awards in 2007, had its Carolina premiere at Belk Theater. In Act 1 alone, Broadway Lights subscribers had to cope with Melchior baring his ass, Wendla baring her breasts, Hanschen simulating a hand job, and an entire teen ensemble, led by eraser-head Moritz spastically out of control. At last, Charlotte was getting to stay up with the grown-ups! A wave of teenybopper titters, scandalized gasps, and jubilant whoops swept the hall as the crowd realized all that implied.

A rowdy, raunchy, rockin' adaptation of Frank Wedekind's notorious 1891 exploration of adolescent angst (banned in Britain for an impressive 72 years), Steven Sater's book remains a vicious poke-in-the-eye aimed at what his hero calls the "parentocracy." It also remains, like Wright's own incendiary Quills, rooted in a more quaint and naive century. It also remains rooted in a more quaint and naive century. Songs by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik, on the other, keep us boldly anchored in this century.

Conceptual challenges for an already shocked audience reached an apex in Act 2 when Melchior, after graphically illustrating the facts of life for his hapless chum Moritz, is confronted with the handwritten document by school officials, Knoopledick and Knockenbruch. In what was by this point a time-warp ritual, Melchior reached into his schoolboy uniform, extracted a wireless microphone, and launched in "Totally Fucked," with the whole cast and onstage band rockin' along. Yet of course, even at this point, there's one word in the song title that is totally beyond the other teens' comprehension. So there was actually some profound depth and rewarding absurdity in the payload. And the cast, including understudy Matt Shingledecker as Melchior (stepping in for Jake Epstein), was every bit as good as the one I saw in the original Broadway production. I don't think the opening night audience would be surprised to hear me say that. Shocked or not.

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