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Woody Guthrie musical biography comes to Sarasota's Asolo Repertory Theatre

Woody Guthrie's most enduring relationship, David Lutken said, seemed to with fire.

There was a mysterious fire that burned down his home when he was a kid. Years later, his sister Clara died in a coal-oil fire, and after that his mother doused her husband, Woody's father, with coal-oil and set him on fire. (She was committed to a mental institution after that attack.)

When Guthrie was an adult, his 4-year-old daughter Cathy was killed in a fire, and Guthrie himself was badly burned in another accidental fire.

"Out of all that, and out of all these very happy times of his life too, came all these amazing songs," Lutken said.

Lutken started out as a singer, and he had been singing Guthrie's music all his life. He thought he knew a lot about the folk singer who became and American folk hero.

When he started work on "Woody Sez," his musical biography of Guthrie, he realized there was a lot he didn't know, including Guthrie's peculiar history with tragic fires.

Lutken, who's based in New York City, is bringing "Woody Sez" to Sarasota. He'll start a three-week run for Asolo Repertory Theatre on May 31.

He calls himself the "deviser" of the show, not the writer. "About 75 percent of the dialogue is Woody's own words from my research," he said. "So I say I 'devised' the show."

All the show's 25 songs, including "This Land Is Your Land," also come from the mind of Woody Guthrie (1912-1967).

Lutken plays Guthrie in the show, and three other actor/musicians play all the other characters, from Guthrie's family to musicians of his era. (The four actors play a total of 15 instruments during the course of the show.)

There have been other autobiographical plays about Guthrie, but most of them deal with only one aspect of this life, or one period of his life. Lutken wanted to write a comprehensive autobiography that followed Guthrie from his childhood to his agonizing death from Huntington's disease.

He premiered the show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2007 and has performed it all across the country ever since. (Local theater-goers may have seen Lutken in a another show, "Honky Tonk Highway," some years ago at Florida Studio Theatre.)

Although he's immersed himself in Guthrie and his music, Lutken has an easy time citing his favorite Guthrie song.

"My favorite, ironically, is one that's not in the show," he said. "My favorite is 'Pretty Boy Floyd.' I'm writing a biography of Woody Guthrie and there's so much to get into a two-hour show. I just couldn't make that one fit."

He does, however, regularly perform 'Pretty Boy Floyd' a hootenannies he hosts after some performances. In Sarasota, the hootenannies are scheduled to follow Sunday matinees, right there in the Mertz Theatre.

The hootenannies are free, and everyone is welcome to bring instruments, join in perform their own original or cover songs, or just come and listen. People who want to see the show can check their instruments so they don't have to sit in the afternoon sun in a locked car.

Details: May 31-June 18, Mertz Theatre at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Show times: 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $55-$69. Information: 941-351-8000, asolorep.org.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.