There’s a hootenanny down yonder in Laguna Beach these days as the Laguna Playhouse presents the Rubicon Theatre production of Lonesome Traveler, a nostalgic trip down folk music memory lane, from the early part of the 20th Century to the mid-‘1960s, when the screeches of Bob Dylan’s electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival signaled the end of an era.

The brainchild of Rubicon Artistic Director James O’Neil, who both wrote and directed the two-and-a-half hour long revue, Lonesome Traveler stars a supremely talented cast of nine, headed by up-and-comer Justin Flagg and the Scenie-winning dynamo who is Jennifer Leigh Warren.

Folk fans of course know “Lonesome Traveler” as one of ‘50s group The Weavers’ greatest hits. It’s also the name of our narrator and guide to this folk song extravaganza, one which opens with the gospel strains of church-influenced tunes like “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” continues on through the 1930s to the arrival of folk greats Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger in the late 1940s, with iconic folk classics like “This Land Is Your Land,” “If I Had A Hammer,” and “Michael Row The Boat Ashore” performed by about as fine a band of singer-musicians as you’re likely to hear all year.

Among the many interesting historical tidbits revealed by Lonesome Traveler Flagg is the temporary interruption of the American folk music revival in the early 1950s by the McCarthy Hearings and the accompanying blacklisting of supposed Communists and Communist sympathizers, many of whom were part of the folk music movement.

Fortunately for folk music and folk music-loving folk, the revival got back on track and stronger than ever in the 1960s thanks to the now legendary Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Odetta and the greater visibility given them by the medium known as television.

Cast members Flagg, Warren (The Muse), Justine Bennett (The Activist), Sylvie Davidson (The Lady), Brendan Willing James (The Poet), Anthony Manough (The Man), and Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper (The Preacher) don assorted costumes and wigs, the better to perform hits made famous by the abovementioned folk stars and others like Harry Belafonte, The Limelighters, and Lead Belly—performances that pay tribute to rather than attempt out-and-out imitations of their signature vocals.

Name an early-to-mid ‘60s folk hit and you’re likely to hear it in Lonesome Traveler’s post-blacklist second act. “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?,” “Puff, The Magic Dragon,” “Blowin’ In The Wind,” “We Shall Overcome,” and “This Little Light Of Mine” are just a few of the many songs certain to ring bells in the memories of audience members of a certain age, though under-40somethings will likely find themselves as entertained as the older set and eager to check out YouTube clips of the original stars.

There’s not a weak link in the entire Laguna Playhouse cast, from the always fabulous Warren to the silken-voiced Manough to the multitalented Mongiardo-Cooper to new-to-StageSceneLA talents Bennett, Davidson, and James, all three vocal and instrumental standouts. (Virtually the entire cast strum guitars and banjoes as well as they sing.) Most stellar of all is the tall, lanky, infectiously likeable actor/singer/musician Flagg, an O’Neil find and one Southland audiences will hopefully not have to wait too long to see again on our stages. Accompanying them all to folksy perfection are James Webb and associate musical director Trevor Wheetman, the entire bunch under the impeccable musical direction of Dan Wheetman.

The Laguna Playhouse welcomes the Rubicon’s crackerjack design team—scenic and lighting designer Thomas S. Giamario, costume designer Pamela Shaw, sound designer Jonathan Burke, prop designer/set dresser T. Theresa Scarano, multimedia designer David Mickey, hair and wig designer Marty Copulsky, assistant sound designer Jason Tuttle, and associate sound designer Danny Fiandaca, all of whom make Lonesome Traveler look and sound as great as it is performed. Linda M. Tross is production stage manager and Vernon Willet assistant production stage manager.

You don’t have to be a folk music fan to fall under Lonesome Traveler’s spell. This reviewer, for one, possesses not a single CD or recording by any of the folk greats whose music comes to life on the Laguna Playhouse stage, yet I had a more thoroughly enjoyable time than I would ever have imagined. My guess is that just about everyone else will too.

Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach.

–Steven Stanley
January 17, 2012
Photos: Ed Krieger

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