World premiere a tuneful salute to a hopeful era
|Marriott Theatre i/a/w Universal Stage Productions presents|
Review by John Olson
A boy living in a remote small town where the men have for generations earned their living from mining is determined not to follow their path – and instead aspires to become a ballet dancer. Oh wait, that’s Billy Elliot. In October Sky, the boy aspires to become a rocket scientist. Readers, forgive that snarky lede, because this will not be a snarky review. But when one opens a musical with such a strong resemblance to the opening of Billy Elliott – with miners marching off to the mine singing a folk-song-ish chorale and descending via an Elliot-esque elevator – writers Michael Mahler and Aaron Thielen and Director Rachel Rockwell (who recently directed a wonderful Billy Elliot at Drury Lane) – are asking for trouble. The resemblances to that earlier musical by Elton John don’t stop there – as in Elliott, the boy’s more intellectual ambitions are opposed by his father, there’s an antagonistic older brother and a supportive mother (in Billy Elliot, she was supportive from the grave – here she’s alive). But you know what? So what? This world premiere musical – which like most first productions has lots of room for improvement – still offers new ideas and very smart writing, with moments that really soar.
October Sky, as you may know, is based on the autobiographical “Rocket Boys” by Homer Hickam and its feature film adaptation, “October Sky.” Hickam, a native of Coalwood, West Virginia indeed became an aerospace engineer for NASA. Hickam was in his teens where the Space Age began, with the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the world’s first space satellite, in 1957. That very first step into space – suggesting that manned space flight might not be far behind – led people to envision all sorts of new worlds. The parallel here is that it became possible for Homer to dream of leaving Coalwood for a “new world” and a new life other than mining. It also leads Homer and his pals to envision a way to break out of their second-class status in high school – sitting in the back seats of their classrooms, behind the jocks that at least have a chance to leave town via athletic scholarships. There’s a marvelous number – “Never Getting Out Alive” – that sets this all up brilliantly – the limitations of a small town and small town high school life. Rockwell has the students moving around school desks and they sing their internal thoughts in chorus. It ought to be the show’s opening number, rather than the miners’ “Marching into Hell.” “Never Getting Out Alive” is the number that sets the tone and expectations for the piece and the writers would do well to simply open with it.
Homer (Nate Lewellyn) is an unpretentious, likable kid as are his buddies – the would-be Lothario Roy Lee (Patrick Rooney) and the nerdier O’Dell (Ben Barker). Inspired by Sputnik, Homer convinces those two to join him in building rockets, but they soon realize they’ll need the help of the brainy and even more socially awkward Quentin (Alex Weisman, in an inventive performance). Their efforts are of course initially met with derision by the town, but as they get closer to building a rocket that can really fly, people start to take notice. The changing attitudes toward the project – which Homer and his pals have dubbed “The Big Creek Missile Agency” – are shown in the first act closing number, “Hey, Did You Hear.” It’s the sort of number a good musical needs – telling and telegraphing the story in a visceral way that theatre without music can’t do.
Michael Mahler’s score incorporates influences like bluegrass, ‘50s rock and religious music that would all be in the world of these characters. His lyrics are smart and frequently witty even if he does tend to rely on single-syllable rhymes we see coming. He’s an unpretentious composer – no Sondheim wannabe, thank you. He writes within a traditional show tune style, and unlike so many recent composers who seem unable to commit to musical ideas, Mahler writes songs with hooks and he makes sure you hear them. October Sky has a richer, more varied score than his previous musical with Thielen, Hero. I’d like to see him try to unify it, though – add some recurring themes that might underscore the hopeful story he and Thielen are telling.
Thielen’s book apparently faithfully follows the plotline of the film, but it could use some paring down. There are plot twists – roadblocks in the way of the boys completing their project in time for science fair deadlines and the like – that seems to come and go too quickly. Some key transformational moments that should be onstage happen offstage. Some of the characters are underdeveloped, especially the boys supportive teacher Miss Riley (Johanna McKenzie Miller in the role played by Laura Dern in the film). The father, John (David Hess) is a bit of an enigma. He’s a former miner who is now the manager. We’re told his work with the mine means everything to him, but his loyalties seem to lie more with the owners than his former co-workers. Additionally, Homer – though energetically and appealingly played by Lewellyn – needs a few warts or something to make him seem more like a real guy and less a generic hero. Finally, the stakes need to be clarified. All this angst for a science project? It has to be more than that — a chance at a scholarship – a ticket out. Thielen probably needs to pare down some elements in order to flesh out others and give the book more focus and power.
Even in its current form, October Sky is an entertaining show, with much credit due to Rockwell’s sharp direction and consistently winning cast. In addition to the appealing quartet of boy scientists, Susan Moniz is perfect as the tough but loving spouse and mom Elsie. Hess creates a believable John, though this solid musical theater veteran only gets one substantial number (“I Don’t Know Him”). The show’s similarities to Billy Elliott may hurt its chances of getting to Broadway, but as a simpler show to produce – no 12-year-old triple threats or choruses of kids required – it could be a real winner for regional productions for years.
October Sky continues through October 11th at Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Dr., Lincolnshire (map), with performances Wednesdays 1pm and 8pm, Thursdays and Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 4:30 and 8pm, Sundays 1 and 5pm. Tickets are $50-$55, and are available by phone (847-634-0200) or online through Ticketmaster.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at MarriottTheatre.com. (Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Liz Lauren
Nate Lewellyn (Homer Hickam), David Hess (John), Susan Moniz (Elsie), Johanna McKenzie Miller (Miss Riley), Ben Barker (O’Dell), Patrick Rooney (Roy Lee), Alex Weisman (Quentin), Terry Hamilton (Ken Dubonnet), Derek Hasenstab (Ike Bykowski), James Earl Jones II (Bathtub Amos), David Lively (Mr. Turner), Jameson Cooper (Jake Mosby), Liam Quealy (Jim Hickam), Neil Friedman (Earl), Jesse Grider (Buck, Chuck), Eliza Palasz (Dorothy Platt), Betsy Stewart (Emily Sue), Caleb Baze, Dara Cameron, Joan Hess, Patrick Lane, Jonny Stein, Betsy Stewart, Elizabeth Telford (ensemble).
Patti Garwood (conductor, keyboard), Matt Deitchman (keyboard, guitars), Steve Roberts (guitars, banjo, mandolin), Emily Beisel (clarinet, bass clarinet), Chuck Bontrager (violin), Dominic Johnson (viola), Tahirah Whittington (cello), Trevor Jones (bass), Jed Feder (drums)
behind the scenes
Rachel Rockwell (director, choreographer), Ryan T. Nelson (music director), Thomas M. Ryan (scenic, design), Theresa Ham (costume design), Richard Jarvie (wig and make-up), Jesse Klug (lighting design), Robert E. Gilmartin (sound design), Mealah Heidenreich (props design), Michael Hendricks (production stage manager), Jill Walmsley Zager (dialect coach), David Siegel (orchestrations), Patti Garwood (musical supervisor, conductor), Jameson Cooper (dance captain), Angela M. Adams (asst. stage manager), Peter Marston Sullivan (artistic associate), Peter Blair (producing associate), James Guess (sound engineer), Samantha Holmes (wardrobe supervisor), Terry James (executive producer), Universal Stage Productions (producer), Andy Hite (artistic director), Liz Lauren (photos)