Review: 'Trios' makes for a pleasant, thoughtful, friendly evening

When the lights come up on The New Vic Theatre's new folk musical revue, “Trios," eleven actor singers play stringed instruments and sing "Walk Right in, Sit Right Down," the easily familiar song for those who remember the Rooftop Singers' making it a hit in 1963 as well as those who don't. So much of American folk music is simply part of our collective consciousness because of the ways it has permeated popular culture and music and been handed down through the years from artist to artist.

“Trios” pays homage to this phenomenon as well as the musicians and music itself, with two 45-minute sets, some silly and witty banter, a variety of songs from the likes of Peter Paul and Mary, The Carter Family (precursors to June and Johnny Cash about whom a documentary was made in 2014), The Kingston Trio, The Mitchell Trio.

Director James Furney and key members of the New Vic family who’ve been doing this kind of show together for years give a history lesson, a walk down memory lane, and an enjoyable evening of three-part harmony American folk music drawn mostly from the mid-20th century.

Deb Koppers narrates, explaining the origins of the music and who the different groups were in each time period before the musicians perform a series of well-known songs. The little bits of context — that Pete Seeger stole/borrowed songs from The Carter Family, that the Mitchell Trio were known for satirical songs, that the Kingston Trio got their start in the 1950s in San Francisco nightclubs — enrich the experience.

Meanwhile, the performers enjoy the very relaxed rapport of folks who have performed together for decades. They invite the audience to participate, though “we ask that you limit yourselves to singing the same song we’re singing right now,” Jim Furney quips.

Other funny ad lib moments abound, particularly as the self effacing Josh White makes fun of himself as he leads his — along with Shawn Newton and Alec Olweean — renditions of the Mitchell Trios’ satire of the Ku Klux Klan in one song and a funeral director in another, with beautiful harmonies and exuberant moments.

James Furney, Wes Garman and Ted Kistler, dressed in matching black and blue Hawaiian shirts, describe themselves as “a little greyer, heavier and dustier than when they started.” Kistler does a nice job on banjo and 12-string guitar as well as rhythm guitar; Furney plays mandolin as well as guitar; and Garman complements them both on guitar.

Jennifer Furney plays Mary to Furney and Kistler’s Peter and Paul, though they don’t actually play any roles other than themselves. She has a rich, warm voice that especially comes to life with daughter Jocelyn and Wendy Wheeler singing songs from Trio — the phenomenal grouping of Linda Ronstadt, Emmy Lou Harris and Dolly Parton — achieving transcendent moments of emotionality with their voices.

The overall arc of the show takes the audience across time and place with old protest songs, love songs, and whimsical silly songs, some famous, some more obscure. It’s not a classic dramatic arc, exactly, but it’s deliberate and effective.

With three stand-up mics and no amplification for the instruments, the sound levels and mix are just right. These are not extraordinary voices, but that actually makes them well-suited to folk music, and the end result is pleasant if not downright lovely. These performers are pros at this work; they perform graciously and generously together, clearly with great love; and their audience is grateful.

New Vic Theatre
134 E. Vine St., Kalamazoo
Through June 10