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‘Woody Sez’ looks at the life and music of Woody Guthrie

The Cleveland Play House is taking a bold step with its production of “Woody Sez” as its season opener. It’s not that the life of the central figure that is problematic; it is the theater’s decision to present the music of Woody Guthrie in a completely unamplified, acoustic environment.

The creator and title character in the production is a lanky David Lutken. Enthusiastic and energetic, Lutken works hard to make the audience like the man who gave us the mythic “This Land Is Your Land,” among others. A spokesman for the common people, Guthrie related to the Midwesterners who lost their land in the great dust storms, as well as the working men and women who were part of the organized labor movement.

Tragic events in Guthrie’s life are presented, but quickly are replaced with more positive images. All of this is done through three dozen songs with dialogue strung between. Lutken is supported by three other excellent musicians. Helen Jean Russell, also of the original cast, joyously belts out songs with an infectious smile. Leenya Rideout plays fiddle and other instruments with aplomb, while David Finch has worthy riffs on harmonica and jaw harp. All told, the cast plays two dozen instruments, scattered on the stage like a museum exhibit. “Woody Sez” becomes a bit cursory in exploring Guthrie’s union and Communist activities. Maybe that makes grant-getting and funding easier.

The renovated Allen Theatre is a successful venue for the unamplified voices and instruments. The audience hears every note and every word. “Woody Sez” runs through Sunday. I’ll bet that most young people attending have never heard a concert without microphones. They’re in for a treat.

Beck Center enchants with melodic “She Loves Me”

We’ve come to expect good things and a high level of production at the Beck Center, and it continues to hold this up with its current production of “She Loves Me.” The premise of the show has had many incarnations, but it took the lush, gorgeous score by Jerry Bock to fully realize the story of romance in Budapest. The setting is a perfume shop with art nouveau scrollwork gracing the walls.

“She Loves Me” is the simple story of a romance in which Amalia Balash and Georg Nowack have never meet each other because they have communicated through letters. Both work at a perfume store and have planned a date to meet for the first time. That they dislike each other sets up the plot complications. There’s no surprise here – we know that they will end up married, but the entertainment is through the clever and literate book by Joe Masterhoff.

Broadway luminary Rebecca Pitcher is Amalia and Jamie Koeth is Georg. The chemistry of them together is greater than their individual parts. Ditto for the rest of the cast, which pours out the fine songs like excellent wine. Director Scott Spence is a bit heavy-handed with slapstick action, but this works to the show’s advantage at an elegant Hungarian restaurant that promises “a romantic atmosphere.” Couples make out, servers drop plates and a tense maitre d’ tries to control the chaos.

“She Loves Me” plays through Oct. 20 at the Lakewood institution.

 

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