Perhaps no question more preoccupies fiscally responsible theater managers these days than how to keep their doors open — that is, how to guarantee bodies in seats and, by extension, how to ensure that as older audiences slowly disappear, younger, darker heads replace them. The Rubicon, having previously grappled with these concerns, has chosen a savvy tack with its reprise of Lonesome Traveler, the wildly popular folk revue penned and directed by co-founder James O’Neil.
The subject matter — scenes from the history of folk, from Appalachian porches to the stage of the Newport Folk Festival, loosely threaded together by the titular narrator — slants toward audience members who recall these songs from their childhoods and have a frame of reference for cultural ephemera like Sing Along With Mitch. But O’Neil has said that when it came to casting the original show in 2011, he was adamant that the performers share the youth of the musicians they would represent onstage. Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were still kids when they hit it big. O’Neil felt the actors playing them should be, too.
The original cast has mostly returned, save for the outstanding addition of Jennifer Leigh Warren, a veteran of the Laguna Playhouse run who has stepped in as the muse and Odetta. The result is a show that, though steeped in musical tradition and the Great American Songbook, feels fresh and vibrant and essential. In some cases, the authentic performance styles of the cast dovetail so exquisitely with their onstage personas that we appear to be hearing a musical dialogue echoing across the decades. (Witness L.A.-based singer-songwriter Justine Bennett channeling Judy Collins in an ethereal rendition of “Turn, Turn, Turn.”) Lonesome Traveler might not exactly constitute youth-oriented programming, but it stands an honest chance of drawing in younger audiences with the cast’s joyful exuberance.
O’Neil has continued fiddling with the show, adjusting lead-in patter and tweaking the set list. The show opens with the traveler himself (Justin Flagg), a Pete Seeger stand-in who guides us through the foundations of folk while introducing us to figures like the Weavers, the Almanac Singers and Cisco Houston. Multimedia projections above the stage help us keep track of time and place throughout the chronologically creative production, with jokes winking at the show’s anachronisms. Scrims to either side serve as time portals, harking back to the legends that inspired our key characters.
O’Neil was careful to include black actors to represent seminal figures like Odetta, Lead Belly and Harry Belafonte, but the cast might benefit from including a Latino actor as well, rather than relying on white actors to carry the occasional Spanish songs. Warren, who post-dates the creation of the show, is riveting every moment she’s onstage, pouring out honeyed vocals. Though no one performer carries the evening, it seems a shame not to foreground her talent with a more central role in the story.
The show hits its high notes when the entire cast gathers onstage. Ensemble numbers like “Goodnight, Irene” and “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” stir the blood and make it difficult not to obey the cast’s bids to sing along. Yes, the production stops just shy of the era when many youngsters would start catching on to the playlist — acts like Simon and Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell and the Mamas and the Papas will have to wait for the sequel. But if the Rubicon has done its job right, these songs will cease to be strangers. You might even find yourself humming one on the way home.
Lonesome Traveler, through May 19, Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura, 667-2900, www.rubicontheatre.org.