By: Paulanne Simmons
If you’d like to take a musical journey, there’s none better than the one offered by James O’Neil’s Lonesome Traveler: A Journey Down the Rivers and Streams of American Folk. More of a folk concert than a play, the show features nine singer/musicians who take the audience from the backwoods of Appalachia to the nightclubs of New York and San Francisco as they dramatize the key moments in the American folk music revival.
The characters they portray personify the great folk singers in American history: Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Huddie William Ledbetter, Odetta, Judy Collins, Joan Baez. The songs they play will warm the heart of anyone who still owns a record collection, ever participated in a political demonstration or just likes good music.
Beginning with the hymn "How Can I Keep from Singing" and ending with the gospel children’s song "This Little Light of Mine," the show incorporates classics such as "This Land Is Your Land," "John Henry" and "Michael Row the Boat Ashore," alongside more modern compositions, including "It’s All Over Now Baby Blue," "Puff the Magic Dragon" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"
Throughout the show, videos projected behind the performers provide context on the times when these songs became popular. Thus the audience is taken back to the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War.
O’Neil, who is the director as well as the writer, keeps Lonesome Traveler moving briskly. The musicians are as adept at changing their costumes as they are at playing their instruments and singing. And scrims and lighting allow us to take a peek at the life of the people who first created this music.
Of course, audience participation is encouraged. Which is a good thing, because for most people it will be very hard to "keep from singing."
Lonesome Traveler runs through April 19 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59 Street, between Park and Madison.
Photos: Carol Rosegg