Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Truly American Road of Rubicon Theatre's LONESOME TRAVELER

Brendan Willing James, Justin Flagg and Nicholas
Mongiardo-Cooper. Photos by  Jeanne Tanner

Folk music has long been considered the music of the people. From its earliest days, it has expressed the sentiments of American working class men and women, helping them soldier on through the hard times. Rubicon Theatre’s Lonesome Traveler: A Journey Down the Rivers and Streams of American Folk honors this distinctly American heritage, with songs that have sprung from the melting pot of our country.

Created by Rubicon artistic director James O’Neil as a semi-narrated concert, rather than a typical book musical or revue, it explores the historical aspect of folk songs that were passed down from generation to generation, many of which were later reinvented and popularized by contemporary artists from the folk movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s.

That O’Neil has a deep love and respect for this period of American musical history is evident in the way he uses storytelling to convey the emotional connection people have with the music that defines them. In fact, his inspiration was the music that shaped his own childhood, and that of his father, growing up in the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma.

The evening spans the period of American musical history from 1926 to 1965, and begins with the Kingston Trio singing an up-tempo version of “Shady Grove/Lonesome Traveler.” Narrator Justin Flagg, as the Lonesome Traveler, then steps out and takes us back to a porch in Appalachia where a John Lomax-like character is recording a soulful African American woman (Tracy Nicole Chapman) singing a slow, bluesy version of the same song for the Library of Congress. It’s a fragile thread that connects the very soul of the music across the generations and sets a significant tone for the performance.

LT says we’re all traveling in the footsteps of those who came before, and it’s a clear message that the show reiterates again and again about the enduring power of music. For most of the first Act the musicians move back and forth between later iterations of a song and its origin. Somewhere along the way though the convention is dropped and story gives way to the music in the form of more self-contained performance sets to facilitate the appearance of later musical icons like Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary, and Bob Dylan.

Using a likeable everyman narrator to take us on this journey is a smart way to frame the evening, but there were times I wasn’t sure if he was speaking as the narrator or one of his several other characters that he portrayed during the show. (In addition to the narrator, Flagg plays Dave Guard, Pete Seeger, A. P. Carter, Lou Gottlieb, and Peter Yarrow…and is very convincing as all of them). New works go through major growth spurts once an audience comes into the mix however and the process of refinement is sure to continue.

That aside, a finer compilation of folk tunes you won’t find. Over the course of the evening more than 40 songs are performed including many well-known tunes like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “This Land is Your Land,” “Deportee,” “Talkin’ Union,” “Goodnight Irene,” “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “We Shall Overcome,” “10,000 Miles,” “Rock Island Line” and “Maggie’s Farm.”

Sylvie Davidson, Justin Flagg, Justine Bennett,
Brendan Willing James and Tracy Nicole Chapman

The cast is an outstanding group of artists, all accomplished musicians in their own right, and like Flagg, each plays a number of characters. Brendan (B. Willing) James, singer/songwriter frontman for the Ventura rock band Shades of Day takes his turn as Woody Guthrie, Paul Stookie, Bob Dylan and others, with an ease that lets you know this music is in his bones, and he is oh so easy to listen to.

Broadway veteran Tracy Nicole Chapman (Caroline or Change, The Lion King, Into the Woods) plays The Muse, who supplies the musical soul of the show, as well as American singer, Odetta, often referred to as “the voice of the civil rights movement.” Chapman adds a necessary depth and richness to the evening and yet is an underused presence that I would love to see expanded as Lonesome Traveler continues to develop.

Justine Bennett plays Sara Carter of the Carter family, as well as Sis Cunningham, a well-known folk singer who was black-listed for her protest songs, and turns in a stirring performance as one of the truly great folk artists and activists that defined a generation, Joan Baez.

The rest of the cast is made up of Sylvie Davidson, playing Maybelle Carter, Bess Lomax, Ronnie Gilbert and Mary Travers; Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper as Bob Shane, Lee Hays, Cisco Houston and Glenn Yarbrough; and Anthony Manough as Lead Belly, Cordell Reagon, Harry Belafonte and others. Each brings his or her own unique qualities to the artists, personalizing their songs in a way that shows how music is, and always will be, the great unifier.

Audience participation is welcomed – this is the music of the people after all – and watching those around me remember their own personal connection to the songs, or for the younger set, discover them for the first time, was really wonderful. It was a night of personal connection for me too.

As a kid I can remember my dad singing “Goodnight Irene” to my aunt Irene when she and Uncle Arnie finished a visit. We had a player piano in the den and “Puff the Magic Dragon” was a piano roll we played over and over with the whole family singing along, and “Barbara Allen” was one of the first folk songs my favorite music teacher, Mr. Anderson, taught us in junior high; small moments, yes, but happy ones that have helped define my life. If that’s the goal of an evening like Lonesome Traveler, then mission accomplished, Mr. O’Neil.

Musical direction is by Dan Wheetman who understands how to enhance the simplicity of these tunes with his arrangements. The blend is phenomenal too. These are voices and instruments that melt together easily and effectively. James Webb, son of legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb, and Trevor Wheetman, Dan’s son, are the musicians that complete the cast and watching them play a multitude of instruments at the side of the stage is almost as much fun as watching the primary action. 

There is a little lonesome traveler in all of us and Rubicon Theatre taps into that universally American aspect of folk music in a way that recognizes it for its true value, a reminder of where we’ve been and a bridge to where we are going, if we just let the music show us the way.

Lonesome Traveler runs through May 15 at Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main Street, Ventura, CA 93001. For tickets, call 805-667-2900 or go to

Lonesome Traveler is part of the 4th Annual Festival of New American Musicals.

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