Anyone who wants a nostalgic journey into the history of folk music in America can find it in James O’Neil’s Lonesome Traveler, a generous program of famous songs (and some lesser-known ones) delivered in the personae of their most renowned performers, including Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Woody Guthrie, the Weavers, and the Kingston Trio. Subtitled A Journey Down the Rivers and Streams of American Folk, the show draws on music from a variety of native sources: gospel and spirituals, blues and folk, workers’ protests songs. Those from the baby boom generation will find much that’s familiar, as well as lesser-known works.
As you might expect, the standards abound: “This Land Is Your Land,” “The Wabash Cannonball,” “John Henry” and “If I Had a Hammer,” “Hallelujah I’m a Bum,” and “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.” The Kingston Trio sings “Tom Dooley” and their loony calypso hit “Zombie Jamboree.” (Pamela Shaw’s costumes nail the button-down, short-sleeve look for Justin Flagg, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, and Matty Charles.) Singers from Lead Belly (Anthony Manough) to Odetta (Jennifer Leigh Warren) pop up in the wide-ranging retrospective.
Many of the singers accompany themselves on guitar, banjo, mandolin, and even washboard and spoons. First among them is Flagg, a.k.a. The Lonesome Traveler (all the performers have nicknames listed in the program, such as The Muse, The Activist, The Lady, The Man). The clean-cut Flagg brings energy and an aw-shucks demeanor to his roles: he’s initially Pete Seeger, and later a member of the Kingston Trio and the Limeliters, and he has a strong tenor voice. As the unofficial emcee for the evening, he makes a splendid host.
The musicianship in the Rubicon Theatre Company production can’t be faulted, and Dave Mickey, the multimedia designer, has rounded up iconic projections to accompany the songs: the Dust Bowl, Okies on the road, black churchgoers from early in the 20th century, the civil rights marches of the 1960s, and a kaleidoscope of historical figures—LBJ, Nixon, Carter, JFK and Jackie in Dallas—and venues, such as the Hungry i, the Village Gate, Café Wha?, and various Newport Folk Festivals.
Mickey’s work is a huge help in locating when and where the singers are, since the script by O’Neil, who has also directed, jumps around in time, sometimes irritatingly. The show almost takes on the aspect of a collage with all the bits and pieces of information offered: mentions of McCarthyism, blacklisting, and cheating songwriters of royalties are thrown out casually. At one point Judy Collins explains that she’s singing a song with the Weavers that she won’t actually cover for another decade, in the 1960s. Later, Joan Baez (Jamie Drake, in a brown wig and a headband) pops up without being identified at all—the audience makeup skewed to older baby boomers, so perhaps it was judged unnecessary because Baez's outfit was recognizable, but one suspects that younger people with a liking for folk music would have appreciated some kind of introduction.
The performers seem to have been directed to continually ingratiate themselves, but at times it makes the tone excessively precious. Sing-alongs—and there are a few—are fine and engaging. But when Flagg announces meta-theatrically that a costume change is going to happen onstage during an instrumental interlude, it’s a postmodern intrusion. And during “Tom Dooley,” Mongiardo-Cooper grins unaccountably—outright jarring during a song about a man who’s going to be hanged, after all.
But these are quibbles. This is fascinating musical history, the songs are gold, and the singer-actors inhabit their characters well. We’re told that Dylan’s introduction of an electric-guitar set at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 occasioned a violent outburst by Pete Seeger, who claimed it was the end of folk music. Seeger was right: an electric-guitar performance of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" by Dylan impersonator Trevor Wheetman is all screeching emotion and scarcely intelligible, compared with the gentle melodies and the clear lyrics of the classic folk songs. Lonesome Traveler makes one long for the time when singers had something to say and wanted lyrics to be understood.
The Rubicon Theatre Company production of Lonesome Traveler plays at 59E59 Theatres through April 19. Evening performances are 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and Sunday (no evening performance April 19). Matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or visit www.59E59.org.