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Lonesome Traveler

James O’Neil’s illuminating portrait of folk music will have you clapping your hands and singing along.

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Sylvie Davidson, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, Justin Flagg and Matty Charles in a scene from “Lonesome Traveler” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Sylvie Davidson, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, Justin Flagg and Matty Charles in a scene from “Lonesome Traveler” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Stefan Woych, Critic

“Michael row your boat ashore, Hallelujah” and “Where have all the flowers gone?” are two folk songs known to most everybody born in the United States. They are engrained in our collective memory. What do they have in common? It has long been debated what is meant by folk music. Old songs whose author is unknown is one idea. Music that is passed on by oral transmission is another. It is also said it is the music that reflects the character of the people that sing it, that its subject matter is the common folk. Then there is folk revival that reached its heyday in the late fifties and sixties. Lonesome Traveler by James O’Neil (writer/director) is a fun musical that pays homage to folk music, explains its history, and takes us on a journey with a lot of wonderful songs, portraits, and stories.

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.

Sylvie Davidson, Jennifer Leigh Warren and Jamie Drake in a scene from “Lonesome Traveler” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Sylvie Davidson, Jennifer Leigh Warren and Jamie Drake in a scene from “Lonesome Traveler” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

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

5A Season

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

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