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First Nighter: Folk Music Honoring 'Lonesome Traveler' Sure is Folksy

03/17/2015 09:37 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2015

The nine singers/musicians of Lonesome Traveler, at 59E59, open their squeaky-clean paean to (primarily) American folk music with the lively ditty, "How Can I Keep From Singing?"

I found it easy -- this despite unceasingly smiling encouragement from the cast to join in. To their credit, not a one of the nine did any audience badgering, nor did they single out those choosing resolutely to keep their traps shut.

Not that I didn't know the lyrics and tunes to "This Little Light of Mine" or "Goodnight Irene" or "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh (Dusty Old Dust)" or "This Land is Your Land." (What? No "Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie"?) I know them since childhood. I'm just one of those people who believe that it's not my place to do the performers' job or to help them out with it. Pay me, too, and I'll sing.

Still, I can't say I objected to the sing-along aspect. I'm aware that others enjoy chiming in. The fellow next to me, who was almost always somewhere in the vicinity of the pitch, had a helluva good time chirruping and clapping along, and who but a die-hard curmudgeon would have discouraged him from it?

What I found less than satisfying was the sketchy history of folk music offered as the two-act musicale went along. Also, just because the entertainment is about the rise and fall and rise and fall and inevitably yet more rises and falls in the folk genre doesn't mean it has to be so relentlessly folksy.

Noting that folk music dated back to the 1920s and even further, of course, and even dropping the name Alan Lomax and the boon brought about by recording devices, Lonesome Traveler concentrates on the years 1955 to the present. Members of the cast shuffle back and forth impersonating folk music popularizers -- especially those championing the idiom during the frequently-declared homogenizing 1960s -- like The Limeliters and The Kingston Trio (but not The Chad Mitchell Trio).

The Weavers get more than a nod, but only members Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes are identified by name. No one thinks to mention Fred Hellerman or Ronnie Gilbert, though she's represented by Sylvie Davidson in a frightening Loretta Lynn wig.

As the group covers various folk music outlets like KFVD-Los Angeles, where Woody Guthrie landed an on-air slot, Justin Flagg and Jennifer Leigh Warren do most of the narrating and much of the lead singing. Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper is handed many of the supposed laugh lines -- cast-member laugh cues are in the script -- and just about always fails to amuse the audience with them.

Not his fault, though. Neither he nor his compatriots constructed Lonesome Traveler. James O'Neil did and directed as well. Yes, he brings up the Dust Bowl and similar hardships, but most of the time he skims through segments like the 1960s folk revival and the emergence of Bob Dylan, Ian and Sylvia and Peter, Paul and Mary. Joan Baez is represented, though not named, by Jamie Drake. Drake is also called on to portray Judy Collins, who's introduced as "the lovely and talented." Whether the still very extant Collins would appreciate being honored in this odd -- and, as it happens, anachronistic -- way isn't a safe bet.

Some of the theatrical flourishes are dubious as well. Two small screens set high on a back wall and a scrim in the middle of it often are filled by footage of, for instance, the Vietnam war or civil rights demonstrations. Sometimes that scrim and two side scrims are lighted (by set designer Thomas S. Giamario) so that scenes and tableaus are visible behind them. My least favorite, which accompanied a "John Henry"/"If I Had a Hammer" medley, was cast member Anthony Manough rhythmically striking a long metal bar (Manough also plays Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter).

As writer and director, O'Neil is so intent on keeping Lonesome Traveler at a good-time hootenanny level (remember hootenannies?) that though he brings in some of the harder crises and their "We Shall Overcome" aspects, he doesn't get as analytic as he might, a direction which would still hold the audience rapt.

Since he calls the project Lonesome Traveler, he might delve into the lonely properties of so much folk music. What does that quality suggest about the American experience as reflected in music that started in mountainous and prairie backwaters?

When folk music was making its irrepressible resurgence at the same time as rock music flourished, it was often criticized as diluted and refined versions of the authentic thing. Somehow Lonesome Traveler -- boasting a troupe outfitted with headphones in the relatively intimate 59E59 auditorium -- has the feel of reflecting that distillation. Although the singing is pure and forthright throughout, it gives the impression of being canned, whereas genuine folk music was anything but.

During that later period, folk music, like country music, was charged with hewing to three- or four-chord melodies. I'll admit that frequently what I was doing while the show traveled on hardly lonesomely was watching the guitar players' left hands and confirming that it was the rare number built on more than three or four chords. But they were darn good chords, weren't they?