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Search: Paul Clayton, the Man Who Loved Bob Dylan
Paul who? Clayton says, "No one had more friends and admirers at those wild Sunday afternoon jam sessions in Washington Square Park." Until recently, however, you had to search hard to find his name, but playwright Larry Mollin tells it all in Search: Paul Clayton, the Man Who Loved Bob Dylan, at the Triad Theater. Mollin recognizes the contributions of Clayton, friend and mentor of Bob Dylan from 1961 to 1965.
A closeted gay man, Clayton was a folk singer, songwriter, and folklore scholar with 11 albums and one hit song when 20-year-old Dylan arrived in the Village, cocky and ambitious. He taught Dylan how to maneuver through the music business. Unfortunately, he also fell in love with him. It was unrequited.
America has a long tradition of folk music, songs created from oral story-telling and customs mostly based on country melodies. In the 1940's, folk music evolved into political and progressive overtones with singer/songwriters like Lead Belly, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. From the late '40's to the mid-'50's, the anti-Communist scare placed a lid on mainstream venues and folk music circulated through colleges and into cities, notably Greenwich Village.
Presented as a Wiki Folk Musical, the show is structured like a Wikipedia page with narration focusing mostly on the Clayton (Peter Oyloe) and Dylan (Jared Weiss) relationship which was driven by folk songs. The story traces Clayton's childhood with battling parents, his studies at the University of Virginia and building a music career in New York. Then came the years with Dylan, hanging out, traveling to Virginia and a cross-country trip that ended in New Orleans when Clayton made a pass at Dylan.
One keynote of the plot is the song he claims Dylan stole from him called, "Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons (When I’m Gone)." Dylan changed the lyrics to "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" put his name on it and had a major hit. Dylan was on his way, Clayton was not. “Dylan is a genius." says Mollin, "He was just a bad friend, basically."
Clayton sued Dylan but even with a copyright, he only won a small payment since he had used the original public domain melody. Clayton admitted, "Borrowing good stuff is what culture is all about. You take a little old melody here, a few old lines there. If you think Woody’s 'This Land Is Your Land' is original, take a listen to the Carter Family’s much older recording of "Little Darlin’ Pal of Mine.'"
With a strong and versatile cast, Mollin's book, directed by Randal Myler, moves briskly with a mixed bag of folk songs. Wisely, Clayton, rather than Dylan, remains in the limelight. Oyloe has a potent expressive voice and is impressive in a touching performance, displaying palpable love for Dylan. Weiss shows Dylan to be a manipulative charmer and morphs neatly into the unique tone of Dylan and his harmonica.
Taking on different characters, the supporting cast includes Ereni Sevasti, notable in showing the tremolo soprano as Joan Baez and Jaime Babbitt as Clayton's friend, Carla Rotolo. With a masterful voice, jazz singer, Allan Harris, as the Rev. Gary Davis, is also outstanding on guitar, notably in the bluesy, "House of the Rising Sun," sung by Dave Van Ronk (Michael Lanning) .
The set, graphics, and projections, however, fail to ignite the color and spirit of the period. Projections are indistinct, failing to present some background for the Washington Square festivals. Shannon Epstein is efficient on lights, especially for the 1965 blackout and in Paul Clayton's 1967 suicide, when the changing music scene, his homosexuality and his unrequited love for Dylan leave him desolate.