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Theater review: 'Lonesome Traveler' at the Rubicon Theatre

April 26, 2011 |  1:10 pm

Lonesome3 Music is a collective memory, calling across time, singing from the soul.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the music we call "folk" -- the sounds of immigrants, slaves and natives, sung in fields, homes and churches and further popularized on concert stages. At the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, these songs have been compiled into a warm, embracing, communal experience that goes by the name "Lonesome Traveler."

Written and directed by Rubicon artistic director James O'Neil, with musical arrangements by Dan Wheetman, "Lonesome Traveler" is a concert held in some timeless place where a voice in a Blue Ridge Mountain cabin is quickly joined by those of the Carter Family, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Weavers, the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and many others.

The songs, some 3 1/2 dozen of them, come rushing back, carrying memories of when we first heard them. "Can the Circle Be Unbroken." "This Land Is Your Land." "John Henry." "Barbara Allen." "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore." "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" "Puff, the Magic Dragon." "Blowin' in the Wind." "Mr. Tambourine Man."

Cast members assume the personas of various folk-music forebears, their renditions sounding much like the originals. Then again, this music was meant to be personalized by each interpreter, which these singers do.

They are a multitalented bunch, some with Broadway experience, others part of the area's cafe music scene. Justin Flagg narrates as the Lonesome Traveler, a fanciful embodiment of the music. The character is a bit of a contrivance, and his lines, in the "Come on along with me" vein, can sound hokey. But in a way, this straightforwardness is in keeping with the music.

Flagg is joined by Justine Bennett, Tracy Nicole Chapman, Sylvie Davidson, Brendan Willing James, Anthony Manough and Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper. All contribute at least a bit of instrumental accompaniment and some swap impressively among an array of instruments and techniques. Further instrumental support is provided by Trevor Wheetman and James Webb.

Events span from 1920s backcountry archival forays by the likes of John Lomax to the 1965 Newport Folk Festival at which Dylan controversially "plugged in" via electric guitar rather than acoustic. Time and place are established by documentary images projected onto overhead screens, and tableaux sometimes materialize behind a scrim, looking like sepia-toned photographs or film reels.

Listen closely and you can hear long-ago voices of Europe, Africa and the Americas, channeled through a joyous commingling of voices and instruments. Each voice retains its individuality yet twines with others to create a more glorious whole. It is, in a way, an expression of an ideal America.

-- Daryl H. Miller

"Lonesome Traveler," Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 15. $49 to $69. (805) 667-2900 or Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes. Also at Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach, Jan. 14-Feb. 5, 2012.

Photo: "Lonesome Traveler" cast members, from left, Sylvie Davidson, Justin Flagg, Justine Bennett, Brendan Willing James and Tracy Nicole Chapman. Credit: Jeanne Tanner / Rubicon Theatre Company.