Upon entering the theater, reminiscent of the clubs in Greenwich Village, the set is visible and kicks off the history. A brick wall with some instruments is to the left, a platform with more instruments in the center with three black scrim walls behind, projection screens above, stand-up microphones in front, and café tables on either side. The inventive set (scenic and lighting design by Thomas S. Giamario and multimedia design by Dave Mickey) seems simple at first. However, as the narrative moves forward, the scenes and images portrayed behind the scrims and on the screens are juxtaposed with actors performing the iconic songs. Sometimes it is silent exposition, sometimes it’s profound subtext. It is always visually striking and intelligent.
O’Neil creates a friendly down-to-earth environment inviting the audience to relax and have a great time. Dressed in simple country garb, the actors/musicians casually enter, approach the audience, and greet them like houseguests. “Come on and join in,” says The Muse played by Jennifer Leigh Warren. The Lonesome Traveler and narrator (Justin Flagg) introduces the history and meaning of folk music and the songs begin. Songs that tell of the common man. You are instantly taken in. Like the images behind the scrims, the stories behind the songs are often tragic and brimming with contemplative observation of the society and times. “If we’re talkin’ about the people’s music, then it needs to be sung by the people,” adds Warren. O’Neil makes it clear that this music is timeless and expressly incorporates anachronisms to further this point. Similarly, nine actors portray dozens of characters from Woody Guthrie and Odetta to abstract names such as The Poet, The Activist, or The Muse.
With energizing original musical direction and arrangements by Dan Wheetman, musical direction by Trevor Wheetman, and orchestrations by George Grove (of The New Kingston Trio,) traditional and contemporary classics stir up more than just nostalgia. These songs are part of your DNA. “This Land Is Your Land” sung by Matty Charles, Sylvie Davidson, Jamie Drake, Flagg and Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper gets your blood flowing. Along with Anthony Manough, they sing about the plight of migrant workers from Mexico in “Deportee.” Drake as Judy Collins does a splendid rendition of Pete Seeger’s song “Turn, Turn, Turn.” If you are old enough and close your eyes, you can relish the memory. You are invited to sing along and you will. The joy that emanates from the music and its players will get to you.
As principal narrator, Flagg is charismatic and easily engages the audience in a sing along. He is impressive playing a number of instruments and wearing several different hats. The talented ensemble cast does a superb job playing a colorful array of roles and instruments, singing a cappella, harmony, and full out concert style. The costumes by Pamela Shaw astutely help tell the story. Several scenes revealed behind the scrim call to mind a Norman Rockwell painting. And you could be fooled by the sight of Peter, Paul and Mary. Marty Kopulsky (hair and wig design) deserves accolades for the many characters and eras to reflect.
The New York premiere of this multimedia folk musical Lonesome Traveler is part educational, part nostalgia, and a whole lot of fun.
Lonesome Traveler (Through April 19, 2015)
Off-Broadway Across America
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues, in Manhattan
For tickets, call Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes with one intermission