Based on the story that inspired the film of the same name – and with a book by the same screenwriter, Anna Hamilton Phelan - Mask tells the story of Rocky Dennis, a 15-year-old boy with a rare condition that has altered his facial bone structure. It also tells the story of his mom Rusty, a Brooklyn-born Jew who became a California biker – and who raised Rocky as a single parent with the help of her motorcycle gang, "The Tribe."
The show begins with the members of The Tribe singing directly to the audience, inviting us to "go with the flow" as they tell us of Rocky's journey down the "highway of life." We're firmly planted in the late '70s here, and the show's lyrics are chock full of time-specific slang and motorcycle metaphors. But the slang is unrealistic coming out of the actors' mouths, especially when Rocky has a song in which he teaches his class about the Trojan War, using such terms as "primo chick named Helen" and "everybody said, 'Say what?'" (lyrics courtesy of Cynthia Weil). The motorcycle metaphors are better delivered, but The Tribe's pop-psychology "Gods of the blacktop" stuff isn't particularly persuasive. Only rarely do you get something with genuine imagery to it – like the beautifully alliterative "kick-ass chrome crusade."
The music itself, by Barry Mann, starts off promising some electric-guitar driven rock, but it is really pretty standard innocuous pop. In the second act, at the height of a confrontational scene, Rusty has a song called "I Can't." The words spew forth nearly uncontrollably – her character is driven by raw emotion and the music of the song matches perfectly. And, while it's a great moment in the show, it also underlines what's wrong with the rest of the score – none of the rest of it is organic to the piece; none of the rest of the songs are compelled by theatrical concerns. Compare "I Can't" to, for example, "Every Birth," a song sung when Rocky makes his annual visit to the medical clinic, and there's a new doctor perusing his chart. An older doctor, who knows Rocky well, suggests that Rocky fill the new doctor in on his history. It's an awkward and obvious setup for a song meant to fill us in on Rocky's condition – and it plays as though the authors had the song first, and then created the scene as an excuse for it.
Allen E. Read gives Rocky a beautiful soaring voice that you know is going to make you cry by the end, but he has surprisingly little to work with in terms of character. It may well have been that the real Rocky Dennis won over his 10th grade class in 30 seconds, charmed a young prostitute, and was only concerned about being allowed to join The Tribe on the ride to Sturgis – but all that goodness gives Read few depths to play. Michelle Duffy gets to show a lot more range as Rusty, as the character's drug addiction and tendency to "do the wrong things for the right reasons" give her a few darker places to go. Duffy gamely goes there – it's almost hard to see her as the same woman who recently played the smiling, confident Pistache in the fantasy world of Can-Can, as she makes Rusty a very real woman barely coping with very real problems. Michael Lanning is solid as the gruff but gentle Dozer, The Tribe's equivalent of Obi-Wan, and he has a gravelly sound to his voice that suitably reflects Dozer's years of hard living.
Patti Colombo is credited with "musical staging" (there's little actual choreography), while Richard Maltby, Jr. directed. Neither's work is exceptional here, although a few missteps particularly annoy. Performers occasionally "act out" their song lyrics when there's no cause to do so; you don't have to pretend to kick someone when you're singing about life knocking them off their feet. The first-act closer with spinning fun-house mirrors (nothing at all like the fun-house mirror scene of the film, and an improvement on it) would be more effective if the actors spinning the mirrors were in black, rather than dressed as their characters. Costumes by Maggie Morgan are time-period appropriate, although a few of them (particularly in the camp dance scene) tend to upstage the action.
And, with all those problems, the show still has heart. It's clearly brought to you by people who are touched by Rocky's story and want you to be touched by it too. It's flawed and trite and cheesy and, at times, poorly executed – but its overwhelming desire to move sometimes overcomes all of it, and if you can let yourself yield to it, you may find yourself effected.
Mask runs at the Pasadena Playhouse through April 20, 2008. For tickets and information, see www.pasadenaplayhouse.org.
Pasadena Playhouse – Sheldon Epps, Artistic Director; Brian Colburn, Managing Director; Tom Ware, Producing Director; by special arrangement with James B. Freydberg proudly presents -- Mask. Book by Anna Hamilton Phelan, Music by Barry Mann, Lyrics by Cynthia Weil. Based on the Universal motion picture Mask. Scenic Design Robert Brill; Costume Design Maggie Morgan; Lighting Design David Weiner; Sound Design Peter Fitzgerald and Carl Casella; Projection Design Austin Switser; Makeup Design Michael Westmore; Hair and Wig Design Carol F. Doran; Rocky's Wig Designed by Bob Kretschmer; Orchestrations by Steve Margoshes; Electronic Music Design by Jeff Marder for Lionella Productions, Ltd.; Arrangements by Barry Mann; Casting Michael Donovan, C.S.A. and Jay Binder, C.S.A./Sara Schatz; Dialect Coach Joel Goldes; Production Stage Manager Joe Witt; Assistant Stage Manager Lea Chazin. Music Direction by Joseph Church; Musical Staging by Patti Colombo; Directed by Richard Maltby, Jr.