Tuesday, March 17, 2015

175 (2014-2015) Review of LONESOME TRAVELER (March 11, 2015)

“Let It Shine, Let It Shine, Let It Shine”

There’s a real live, hand-clapping, foot-stamping, sing-along hootenanny going on over at 59E59 Theaters, where James O’Neil’s LONESOME TRAVELER, a sprightly cavalcade of (mostly) American folk music, has set up camp. And it does go on, covering 35 folk classics in two acts lasting two hours and 15 minutes (including an intermission); as the songs barrel along, you begin to get the impression of one of those greatest hits commercials on TV where one title after the other rolls by endlessly as snippets are heard on the sound track. In LONESOME TRAVELER, however, you get not snippets but the full versions of familiar (and, perhaps, a few less so) songs, ranging from the title number to the rousing finale, “This Little Light of Mine.”
From left: Sylvie Davidson, Jennifer Leigh Warren, Jamie Drake. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
And, of course, it all comes packaged as a history lesson, linked with narrative commentary on the social and political context of the music, most of it illustrated on projection screens with stills and video clips—often identified by year numbers—of the times during which most of the songs were created. We’re also informed, anecdotally, of the music’s performance history, as per radio and TV shows, countercultural nightclubs, and major venues, like the Newport Jazz Festival. But so much time is covered—principally from the early 20th century to the folk music explosion of the 1960s—that the history gets a bit muddled, especially as the material shifts from chronological to unchronological sequencing.
Anthony Manough, Jennifer Leigh Warren. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
At the end, after Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” is sung, titles listing many of the major folk singers and groups that followed flash by in quick succession; these are succeeded by numerous dated photos rapidly showing the progression of the years until 2015 arrives, even though we don’t get any of the music of the period that’s just been highlighted. This approach suggests that Mr. O’Neil, who also directed, has perhaps tried to cram too much into his show, and that, had he been able, he’d have added on yet another couple of hours.
Matty Charles. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Still, this is a very well-performed, upbeat show, with a versatile, talented company of nine musician singers, three of them female, and two of them African-American. Using simple but effective costume changes (the period costumes are by Pamela Shaw), with the women also employing an assortment of wigs, each performer embodies multiple singers; two musicians—Sam Gelfer and Trevor Wheetman—join in several choruses but don’t do solos.

The program identifies the performers with emblematic names that don’t seem to have much significance during the show proper: there’s the Lonesome Traveler (Justin Flagg), who portrays six artists, including Pete Seeger and Peter Yarrow; the Poet (Matty Charles), who enacts Woody Guthrie, Ian Tyson, and others; the Preacher (Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper), whose artists include Glenn Yarbrough and Theodore Bickel; The Man (Anthony Manough), who impersonates Brownie McGhee, William Ledbetter (Lead Belly), and so on; The Muse (Jennifer Leigh Warren), who handles various African-American women, including Odetta; the Lady (Sylvie Davidson), who ranges from Maybelle Carter to Ronnie Gilbert to Mary Travers; and the Activist (Jamie Drake), whose roles include Judy Collins and Joan Baez. Among the popular groups represented are the the Weavers, the Limeliters, the Kingston Trio, the Ramblers, and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Aside from Ms. Warren, who provides washboard, bongo, and tambourine accompaniment, everyone plays either guitar (electric or acoustic, as needed), mandolin, or banjo. 
Jennifer Leigh Warren, Justin Flagg. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Designer Thomas S. Giamarro has provided a simple platform stage backed by scrimmed walls that allow figures from the past to be seen dimly under Mr. Giamarro’s effective lighting. The action generally occurs on a stage or in a radio or TV studio.
From left: Silvie Davidson, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, Justin Flagg, Matty Charles. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
With roots in the Appalachian Mountains, the Depression, the Dust Bowl, unionization, World War II, the McCarthy years, the Civil Rights movement, and the Vietnam War, the show’s songs cover a wide variety of subjects, moods, and traditions, including spirituals (“Michael Row the Boat Ashore”), calypso (“Zombie Jamboree”), and Cuban (“Guantanamera”). You’ll hear “Lonesome Traveler,” “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh,” “This Land Is Your Land,” “John Henry,” “Turn Turn Turn,” “Rock Island Line,” “Midnight Special,” “Goodnight, Irene,” “Tom Dooley,” “We Shall Overcome,” and too many others to mention, including some you’ll be happy to encounter for the first time.

Let’s close this out by joining in, as we’re asked to do in the show: “Just one more time!”


59E59 Theaters
59 E. 59 Street, NYC
Through April 19