Our Laguna: 'Lonesome' gala is anything but

"Lonesome Traveler" had plenty of company Saturday at the Laguna Playhouse gala opening.

The Rubicon Theatre Co.'s ode to American folk music had the sold-out audience spontaneously singing along and the enthusiasm didn't end when the curtain came down.

"This was so fun," said Kathy Conway, as first-nighters mingled with the cast and toasted them with champagne.

Conway said she knew every word of the songs performed by the nine-member cast in their roles inspired by folk music immortals such as Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Lead Belly and others.

"I knew a lot of the music, but especially the spirituals," said Councilwoman Elizabeth Pearson, whose family still lives in North Carolina.

Singalongs were encouraged by Justin Flagg in the role of the narrator, the "Lonesome Traveler," aka Pete Seeger. Well-known songs included "This Land is Your Land, "Blowin' in the Wind," "Goodnight, Irene," "Puff, the Magic Dragon" and "Mr. Tambourine Man."

"Folk music is very much about participation, not observation," said show designer Tom Giamario.

Even the set was familiar to many — those who spent time in the 1960s in San Francisco recognized the nod to the iconic "Hungry i," the lowercase "i" intended but never fully explained. The club presented folk singers such as Glen Yarborough and the Kingston Trio, as well as boosted the careers of young comedian Bill Cosby and satirist Mort Sahl.

"Lonesome Traveler" was written and directed by Rubicon Theatre's artistic director, James O'Neil. Performances continue through Feb. 5.

"This is the third year we have worked with the Rubicon," said Karen Wood, Playhouse executive director.

Last year, Rubicon and the Playhouse were among the consortium of six theaters that staged the premiere of "Daddy Long Legs."

"They produced 'Lonesome Traveler' at their theater and now here," Wood said of Rubicon. "We are already looking at what are going to do this year."

"Lonesome Traveler" is a stroll through American folk music, although "folk music" is said to be an English term that originated in the 19th century. In America, its roots include the church music of the country's black population.

How fitting that "Lonesome Traveler" concludes with "This Little Light of Mine" and includes "We Shall Overcome," music of the Civil Rights Movement.

Folk music exploded in the Beat Generation's coffeehouses of the 1960s, and its genre was well represented in the show.

"My relationship with this music goes back to when I was six or seven years old," O'Neil said. "My father was a child of the Great Depression. He grew up in Oklahoma and came to California during the Dust Bowl.

"As I was growing up in the late '50s and early '60s, our house was filled with the sounds of the folk revival."

The title came from the notion that life is a solitary journey, but music can offer solace and bring folks together, O'Neil said.

"Jim O'Neil has brought together a remarkable and uniquely talented cast of performers who take us on a memorable journey through decades of American folk music," said Ann Wareham, the Playhouse's artistic director.

The cast is better and younger looking offstage. Petite Jennifer Leigh Warren, who first appears as a spiritual singing old woman, bent of knee and back, is a pocket venus, with a list of Broadway, film and recording credits.

Peter Fournier, one of the Laguna Concert Band's conductors, gave kudos to the production.

"The cast was more than professional," Fournier said. "The lighting and the sets were wonderful, the variety of selection (of music) excellent."

Carol Reynolds, a founder of the band, called the show "pure sound."

"It was wonderful," Reynolds said.

A group of about 30 band members and spouses attended the gala, which included recognition of the band's association with the Playhouse.

"The 70-piece orchestra uses this stage like it has never been used before," Band President Matt Wood said.

Tickets are available for "America the Tubaful," which will be performed on Feb. 19 at the Playhouse. It is one of 20 concerts scheduled this year. Visit http://www.lccband.org.

Wood, no relation to the Playhouse executive director except for a love of the arts, thanked the city and community organizations for their financial support.

The evening began with hors d'oeuvres served on the patio and concluded with champagne and dessert.

In between: a large serving of enjoyment.

Gala guests included Councilwoman Toni Iseman and Steve Miller, Arts Commissioner Pat Kollenda, Visitors Bureau and Sister Cities Assn. President Karyn Philippsen, Arts Alliance President Wayne Baglin, Laguna College of Art & Design President Jonathan Burke, Friends of the Library and Laguna Beach Taxpayers Assn. President Martha Lydick, and Chamber of Commerce Interim Executive Director Kristine Thalman.

Also: Carolyn and Dr. Thomas Bent, director of the Laguna Beach Community Clinic; Lynn and Tim Carlyle, former school board member; Mary and Matt Lawson, chair of the Design Review Task Force; Heidi Miller, owner of Tight Assets; Mark Christie, owner of Hobie Sports and Tuvulu; Dr. Gary and school board member Betsy Jenkins, who were recently named "Citizens of the Year" for the 2012 Patriots Day Parade; and Jim and Karen McBride, who appeared at the Playhouse in the award-winning "Quilters."

And more: Steve Dotoratos and Dave Sanford, Doctor's Ambulance representative; Sandi and Richard Schwarstein, legal advisor to the Sister Cities Assn.; Ellen and Ron Harris, Laguna Beach Live! board member; Gary and Nancy Beverage, LCAD trustee; Don Haudenschild, concert band board member; Susan Davis, Festival of Arts special events coordinator; Jane and Joe Hanauer, owners of the Old Potter Place; Nadine Ashby, a member of the Playhouse's 90th-anniversary celebration and fundraiser for the Animal Crackers Foundation; and Rita Rudner, who is set to open April 24 at the Playhouse in the world premiere of "Tickled Pink," which she wrote.

OUR LAGUNA is a regular feature of the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Contributions are welcomed. Call (949) 302-1469 or email coastlinepilot@latimes.com with Attn. Barbara Diamond in the subject line.

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