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The Lonesome Travelers

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The late, great James Brown once posed the melodically rhetorical question, “Do you like good music?” Now there’s a celebratory rejoinder to that rhythmic query, and it’s been on display for a week (August 26 – September 2) at the Laguna Playhouse, in the form of a concert production of The Lonesome Travelers. Indeed, if you do like good music there’s no better place to hear and enjoy it than through the revue of the American folk music tradition onstage at this soulful seaside venue.

Initially conceived and directed by James O’Neil – and first produced at Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre in the spring of 2011 – Lonesome Traveler was a theatricalized tour through four-decades of folk music, prego Americano. It worked its way south to The Laguna Playhouse, in January of this year, where it appealed to a wide range of pleased audience members.  In this iteration, Lonesome Traveler changes its title to become The Lonesome Travelers. Also, any pretense of theatricality has been put aside here: The Lonesome Travelers is now a concert event.

This doesn’t mean that the show lacks emotion, however. When the charismatic Brendan Willing James strums the guitar and sings Gordon Lightfoot’s melancholy “Early Morning Rain,” the audience is bonded through the lachrymose lyrics and the musings of the music, as well as James’s beatific rendition of this ode to alienation.

With nine musicians having what appears to be the time of their lives (musical arrangements by Dan Wheetman), we are given a range of work from various masters of folk music. Of course, Pete Seeger (alive and still making music at the well-ripened age of 93!) is featured as a staple of the mid-century folk music movement. Seeger’s cross-over hit song, "Turn, Turn, Turn" – made popular by the classic rock group The Byrds – is actually taken from biblical texts found in Ecclesiastes, and, as performed here by The Lonesome  Travelers, it is a transcendent revelation ( Justin Flagg’s evoking of Seeger’s sensibilities is a subtle homage to the folk hero).

Moreover, Anthony Manough’s vibrant and visceral interpretation of bluesman Huddie William "Lead Belly" Ledbetter’s "Midnight Special" suggests the oppressive environment from which this song grew – Jim Crow Laws, separate and unequal public facilities based on race, and, most soberingly, lynching. With lyrics such as “If you ever go to Houston, you better walk right, you better not stagger, you better not fight,” the ominous overtones fill the air.

Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper pays high tribute to Woody Guthrie in a rarely heard version of "This Land is Your Land," which includes this verse: “As I was walkin' - I saw a sign there… And that sign said - no tress passin'… But on the other side... it didn't say nothin! Now that side was made for you and me!” Clearly, Woody Guthrie’s sentiments are reflected in the economic struggles we face today. Sadly, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Jennifer Leigh Warren is in magnificent vocal form in this ensemble of marvelous music makers. Her performance of "This Little Light of Mine" is rousing and, as with so much of the music here, seems to dare audience participation with the musicians actively encouraging it. Rounding out the power players of this vast musical revue are the divine Justine Bennett, exquisite songstress Sylvie Davidson, mighty music-maker James Webb, and Trevor Wheetman, providing musical direction.

Though The Lonesome Travelers: In Concert has ended its summer run at The Laguna Playhouse, like the seasons, it’s sure to be a perennial phenomenon at this locale.  To learn schedules and upcoming shows at the Laguna Playhouse, visit www.lagunaplayhouse.com.

 

Spotlight

Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.