On Theater: 'Traveler' is history lesson in folk music

Folk music, that most uniquely American art form, takes center stage at the Laguna Playhouse with the world premiere of "Lonesome Traveler," covering four decades of the evolving genre.

Starting with the mid-1920s and ending in 1965 — when Bob Dylan famously brought the genre to an end by playing an electric guitar — this import from Ventura's Rubicon Theater Company is bound to lift audiences' spirits with its enthusiasm for the homespun style of performing, backed by guitars and banjos.

More of a concert than a dramatization, "Lonesome Traveler" — written and directed by James O'Neil — presents a plethora of folk tunes, from the hardscrabble world of America's dust bowl to the protests against the Vietnam War. Along the way, troupe members impersonate such key folk artists as the Kingston Trio; the Limeliters; Peter, Paul and Mary; Joan Baez; Harry Belafonte and others.

The first act covers the years 1926 to 1952 and offers a few familiar tunes tucked into the mix. In the second half, which covers 1958 to 1965, most of the selections will ring true to seasoned ears.

Tying it all together is the title character, richly enacted by Justin Flagg, who serves as both narrator and featured performer, tracing the history of folk music through the ages. He's backed by some terrific voices, most notably that of Jennifer Leigh Warren, who can hit notes most singers can't see.

During much of the show, Flagg and the other performers encourage the audience to sing along.

As Dylan, Brendan Willing James projects an appropriately sour countenance, while Justine Bennett excels as Baez and other characters. Sylvie Davidson sparkles as Mary with Peter and Paul, and Anthony Manough is a one-man calypso revival as the spirited Belafonte. Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper completes the cast as a towering preacher.

The first half of the show is educational as well as entertaining, as few in even a Laguna audience would recall events of the 1920s and '30s that inspired its folk music. Indecipherable imports such as "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena" and "Guantanamera" are inserted smoothly into the mixture, while the closing song, "Goodnight, Irene," will stir more than a few reminiscences.

In the second segment, we get the hit folkies of the '50s and some of that era's most memorable tunes — "Tom Dooley," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?," "Puff, the Magic Dragon," "Jamaica Farewell" and "Blowin' in the Wind," to name a few. And the troupe offers the Kingston Trio's comic "Zombie Jamboree" intact, down to the offhand remarks.

When the Dylan-electric moment arrives, it's reported that Pete Seeger was backstage trying to pull the plug. Whether that was because of the amplification or due to Dylan's blatant, repetitive version of the fairly awful "Maggie's Farm" isn't quite clear.

The troupe treads lightly on the protests of the '60s, though its choral rendition of "We Shall Overcome" is a clear highlight. Dylan (James) and Baez (Bennett) make a winning team on their duet of "Blowin' in the Wind."

Director O'Neil's fervent attention to detail pays dividends in this informative, entertaining and inspirational production, a high water mark for the Laguna Playhouse.

TOM TITUS covers local theater for the Coastline Pilot.

If You Go

What: "Lonesome Traveler"

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays until Feb. 5

Tickets: $30 to $65

To buy tickets: Call (949) 497-2787, or go to http://www.lagunaplayhouse.com

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