‘Lonesome Traveler' has great music but could use a rewrite
Laguna Folk music show is fun but trite
With its familiar songs, inherently dramatic stories about conflict and hard times, and musical superstars as characters, "Lonesome Traveler" should be better than it is.
James O'Neil's rambling revue about the golden years of American folk music, which he created last year for his Ventura ensemble, Rubicon Theatre Company, opened Saturday at the Laguna Playhouse. While it should please fans of the genre and it boasts plenty of eminently singable tunes performed by capable singer-musician-actors, you come away with a feeling that with this much material begging to be turned into a story, O'Neil missed a great opportunity.
The juicy stuff is barely touched upon in the two-and-a-half hour show.
Folk music existed for centuries, developing into an American art form in Appalachia and other hardscrabble corners of the republic. It broke through in the 1920s, when a seminal Tennessee recording session started careers and made many traditional songs popular.
There are questions and potentially fascinating areas of friction here.
Why and how did folk and country music split apart? What kind of rift developed with the old guard in the '30s when young political activists such as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie used folk music as an instrument of social protest? And what happened after the famous fight at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, when Bob Dylan went electric and Seeger and other old timers blew their tops over his new, un-folksy direction?
These historical details are examined very lightly in O'Neil's story. He never set out to turn this evening of pleasant and sometimes moving songs into a full-fledged play with music, but still, once the tales have been hinted at we naturally want to know more. Theater is about stories, artfully told, and "Lonesome Traveler" doesn't delve into the treasure trove of fables surrounding American folk music and its colorful personalities.
O'Neil does try to sketch out the turbulent and eventful history of folk music from the 1920s through the mid '60s, and we get a wonderful sampling of the best songs of several generations: "Can the Circle Be Unbroken?"; "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You"; "This Land Is Your Land"; "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore."
We also meet the big names and hear their songs: Dylan ("Blowin' in the Wind," "Mr. Tambourine Man" and several others), Peter Paul and Mary ("Puff, the Magic Dragon"), Ian and Sylvia ("Someday Soon" and a Gordon Lightfoot classic, "Early Mornin' Rain").
Woody Guthrie makes an appearance; so does Seeger. They sing their sharp songs of protest, including "Deportee (Plane Wreck Over Los Gatos") and "Talkin' Union". We even get to meet Harry Belafonte briefly. Joan Baez, the Kingston Trio and several other big names drop by.
O'Neil doesn't solve a central problem of his show: how to present its history in a way that's informative yet entertaining. He opts to hop back and forth randomly through time, which is confusing and leads to awkward and self-conscious moments when performers of different generations find themselves onstage together. O'Neil commits the mistake of having them comment on the temporal absurdity, one of many instances when deep-themed and beautiful songs are undermined by shallow chatter.
The show's seven performers are multi-talented and committed to the material. They include Justin Flagg, an affable guitarist, banjo player and singer who plays the Lonesome Traveler, the evening's quasi-host, and several other characters; Anthony Manough, whose Harry Belafonte is one of the evening's high points; and the electrifying Jennifer Leigh Warren, who owns the ensemble's most pliant and emotionally affecting voice
They're joined onstage by two capable and understated musicians, James Webb and Trevor Wheetman.
O'Neil's staging whisks us through many times and places, from East Village folk clubs in the 1950s to a backwoods Tennessee recording studio in the 1920s and the Newport Festival in the mid-'60s. Projected images are used to set the scene. They're helpful, but very small.
Perhaps writer/director O'Neil is too enamored of his material. This show could benefit from another voice in the writer's and director's seats, amplifying certain story elements and turning the performers into characters with full-blooded relationships, not two-dimensional song delivery systems. There's a wonderful collection of stories to be unpacked here, full of passion and conflict. Why not explore them?
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