BWW Review: World Premiere OCTOBER SKY Gets Off the Ground
Musical theater is rocket science, in a way. There may not be any hard-and-fast formulae, but the chemistry - the balance of all its ingredients - has to be just right: powerful enough to get off the ground, but not explosive. A crack team of pros also has its benefits, of course. (Aaron Thielen, book; Michael Mahler, score; Rachel Rockwell, direction.) And so - like those very first experiments down at the Cape - it is exciting to announce that the world premiere of October Sky, a new musical based on the 1999 Universal film and the memoir of NASA engineer Homer Hickam, Jr., clears the launch pad. Though for it to break the stratosphere and beyond, it'll paradoxically need to find solid ground, as one of the best songs puts it.
It's a story as old as the Appalachian hills, all the more remarkable for being true: boy will not do what his father does and what his forefathers have done before them, instead deciding to engineer his way out. Homer (Nate Lewellyn) and his knot of misfit friends are not engineers, though, nor much of anything to Coalwood, WV, a town that puts its men in the mine if football scouts don't nab them first. They are spindly nerds in a world of thick muscles and thicker skin, where death happens to even the most careful of people, where stoicism is the rule. But when the Soviets launch Sputnik and it glides overhead in the night - when the outside world comes to their backyard - Homer wants in on the space race in any way possible. All much to the delight of his mother Elise (Susan Moniz) and teacher Miss Riley (Johanna McKenzie Miller); the skepticism of many; and the abject disapproval of his father, mine superintendent John (David Hess).
It is a story, naturally, about one-in-a-million chances and impossible hurdles being overcome. But disregarding any familiarity with the story itself - I read the memoir semi-regularly; it's warm and inviting and worth checking out - the obstacles in this musical sort of come and go when needed, and the payoff of beating them seems sudden and all too easy. The funding for the Big Creek Missile Agency (as the boys dub themselves), which was a constant struggle by Hickam's indication, is taken care of in one song. By the next song, the town is abuzz with their efforts, and their rocket launches are well-attended. The journey of Coalwood - skepticism and dismissal to rallying support - is already present, but it needs to be judiciously spaced throughout.
And what sustainable obstacles that are there don't feel entirely deserved. When circumstances force Homer to put the rockets aside and work in the mine, there is much fretting about his decision to do so. At the risk of sounding cruel, someone does need to keep the family upright.
On the topic of obstacles, the bald-faced emotional expression could also get jettisoned, as it really doesn't fit these characters well, at least when they are in public. In private, they can freely be as open as they want, as in Elsie's "The Man I Met" or Miss Riley's "Something That's Divine." In public, their words are tinged with knowingness and tough love, as in Elsie's "Solid Ground" and Miss Riley's "All My Fault." In other words, it's not particularly an environment in which Elsie would say to John, "Maybe you love the mine more than your son," in a huff. Mr. Turner (David Lively), the ruddy principal, perhaps bears the heaviest load in this, as he's a "Most unorthodox!" away from being a stock disapprover of dreams. A more resigned approach - something acquired after watching years' worth of bright students end up in the mine - would work much better.
Let it be known, though, that these are not major complaints as much as they are fleeting and easily patchable inconsistencies in an otherwise remarkably strong work. (All the more remarkable for being only two years in development, which is rather quick to other film-to-stage adaptations today.) On the whole, Aaron Thielen has ably written people of the hills, not hillbillies, and veers well-clear of condescension. Mining isn't portrayed as a lesser profession, but merely different from what Homer wants. Any given scene between John and local union leader Ken Dubonnet (Terry Hamilton) shows this, burning with the pride they have in their work and its impact beyond the mountains. Equally important, the boys' journey into rocketry -from blowing up fences to winning science fairs - is believable and relatable. It evolves, and it evolves them from idle boys to focused adults.
Even in its first outing, Michael Mahler's score is a jet-propulsive winner. With the hardscrabble miners' chorus "Marching Into Hell," he grabs you by the throat, and by the final reprise of the sure-to-be breakout song "Look to the Stars," there's sure to be a lump in it. Equally versed in the dreams of kids and the realities of adults, as well as the sounds of the time and place (David Siegel's orchestrations are a perfect fit), his lyrics are nimble, clever, and probing, and the music is tuneful and enriches its singers.
Nate Lewellyn as Homer gets his fair share of the songs and flies off with them, especially as he builds confidence as the story unfolds; his Act Two turning point, "Stars Shine Down," is a triumph. His friends - would-be ladies' man Roy Lee (Patrick Rooney), limping O'Dell (Ben Barker), and socially stunted genius Quentin (Alex Weisman) - effectively radiate their hurting at their being outcasts, but more importantly have uproarious chemistry, especially in the hootenanny "Moonshine."
Backing them up, Moniz's Elsie and Miller's Riley know when to tell the unvarnished truth and when to open up, to great effect. A little slower in that regard, David Hess takes a tricky role - an unsympathetic (favoritistic, even) father - and makes it work. "I Don't Know Him," his big song - his only one, really, which is appropriate - makes sense of this enigmatic man and blows him open like dynamite.
Rockwell's direction is rock-solid and truthful, and her use of the in-the-round space is inventive, but not hidebound to it, leaving open room for (sure-to-be) future productions and interpretations. All around us, Thomas M. Ryan brings together the tin-and-timber Coalwood reality and a sort-of dreamscape background of same. And though there's magic to be had in the rocket launches, the real magic is above us: the garlands of incandescent bulbs by Jesse Klug. When they twinkle and shine above us, we, too, can believe that they are stars, stars easily within the rocket boys' reach. And when they put their minds to it and are lifted up by their earthen town, they do.
And so, with an ample brain and a generous heart, with just a little more muscle, October Sky, too, will soar.
The performance schedule is Wednesdays at 1:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4:30 p.m., and 8 p.m., Sundays at 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m., with select Thursday 1:00 p.m. shows. Ticket prices range from $50 to $55, including tax and handling fees. On Wednesday and Thursday evenings, there are a limited number of Dinner and Theatre tickets available, which can only be purchased through the Marriott Theatre Box Office. On Friday and Saturday evenings, dinner reservations can be made at the King's Wharf restaurant. Additionally on Sundays, dinners in the Fairfield Inn are available. To make a reservation at either of these two restaurants, please call (847) 634-0100. Free parking is available at all performances. To reserve tickets, please call the Marriott Theatre Box Office at (847) 634-0200 or go to www.ticketmaster.com. Visit www.MarriottTheatre.com for more information.