By Eric J. Grimm
Writer-director James O’Neil has his dial set on “crowd pleaser” for Lonesome Traveler, his jukebox musical featuring some of the best loved tunes from popular American folk music. The show is a loose journey through the history of the movement from the 1920s-1960s, which is fitting given the play’s admission that fully tracing the origins of American folk music would be an exercise in futility. While it would have been nice to see O’Neil’s play go deeper on what the songs and movement represented, Lonesome Traveler is still a fun night of theater that stays true to the spirit of the genre’s progenitors.
Throughout the play, the titular Lonesome Traveler (Justin Flagg) sets many of the thirty six songs within social and historical context. The traveler generally represents Pete Seeger, though O’Neil takes care not to deify the man most widely associated with the movement. Flagg is a fine narrator and singer with enough affability to carry the show.
The excellent nine performer ensemble plays most of folk’s big stars including Lead Belly, Odetta, The Carter Family, The Kingston Trio, Peter Paul and Mary, and Woody Guthrie among others. One particular standout is Jamie Drake as Joan Baez. Her take on “Wild Mountain Thyme” is an example of the show’s fidelity to the original performances, but her startling and beautiful voice goes beyond imitating Baez.
The show does not shy away from the leftist slant of much of the music. Indeed, there are pro union labor songs and tunes about ending war and acknowledging the lives of dead deportees. Where O’Neil doesn’t quite hit the mark is in his slight acknowledgement of the role of spirituals in forming the basis for many folk songs. The script mentions spirituals a few times but does not go into detail about slavery or the civil rights movement. One troubling moment at the top of act two features the show’s black performers (Jennifer Leigh Warren and Anthony Manough) singing the spiritual “There’s a Meeting Here Tonight” behind a scrim before the song transitions into the radio version by the white male trio The Limeliters, who are showcased front and center. If the staging is a commentary on cultural appropriation, it’s not an explicit one.
That said, Jennifer Leigh Warren often steals the show, getting big laughs in her dialogue between songs and going for the stratosphere with her big, beautiful voice. Warren lights up the house in group numbers like “We Shall Overcome” and “This Little Light of Mine” and skillfully explores her lower range as Odetta on “All My Trials”. Her performance alone conveys the importance of black women’s contribution to folk music.
Lonesome Traveler is playing at 59e59 Theaters through April 19. For tickets, visit 59e59.org.