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10 Million Miles

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Irene Molloy and Matthew Morrison
Photo by Monique Carboni.

One of the chief messages in 10 Million Miles, the new musical that just opened at the Atlantic Theater Company, is that life is often found when and where you least expect it. That's doubly true with regards to this show, which provides the jukebox musical with the crucial thing the pusillanimous genre almost invariably lacks: humanity.

It achieves this miraculous feat much the way Jersey Boys, last year's Tony winner for Best Musical, did: by utilizing its book as an integral component of drama, not merely a method of stringing together pop songs. Keith Bunin, whose play The Busy World is Hushed was among last season's more memorable offerings, has written merely a skeletal libretto to link the compositions of Grammy-nominated songwriter Patty Griffin, but he's furnished it with such genuine delight and heartbreak that the end result feels like the fullest of all jukebox musicals.

This is not to say that Griffin's 15 songs seamlessly meld into the road-trip romance of young not-quite lovers Duane (Matthew Morrison) and Molly (Irene Molloy). Too often, Bunin and director Michael Mayer shuffle to the side so a frolicsome musical interlude can dominate the action for some spurious reason. However, treated with little silliness and no camp, 10 Million Miles insists you view it much the way you would a non-musical play: as a rippling examination of two people battling with themselves, each other, and with the frequently harsh reality in between.

Molly's a young woman who's been too free with her love and her body, and desperately wants to leave her southern Florida home for a new life in New York - for both her and the unborn baby she's carrying. Duane's entire life is a tall tale, forever evolving and mutating depending on who he meets, but it's clear that he's both an ex-military man and one of Molly's former hook-ups. In fact, he's positive he's the baby's father, and is determined to behave accordingly and get Molly safely where she's going.

But it's a long way up the Eastern Seaboard, allowing plenty of time for the initially acrimonious duo to realize they belong together. Or maybe not. Their optimistic journey, reflected in the more jaded eyes of the older men and women they meet along the way (all of which are played Skipp Sudduth and Mare Winningham), is stranger and sadder than you might think, with bumps and hairpin turns not at all unlike those in the roads they're traveling. Bunin makes it quite clear that this is a boy-meets-girl story for the 21st century, with all the requisite vagaries and complexity.

Irene Molloy, Matthew Morrison, Skipp Sudduth, and Mare Winningham
Photo by Monique Carboni.

These qualities are for the most part beautifully mirrored in Griffin's songs, country tunes that twist traditional stereotypes of whiskey-drenched pain into modern ruminations on life's (sometimes-unrealized) bounties. Numbers pining for a world that vanished with the modern age or embracing or assaulting the unpredictability of love fit right into Bunin's view of the highway as a place where anything can happen - not all of it good. If certain hits feel shoehorned into the action ("Mad Mission" and "Love Throw a Line" among the less-necessary showstoppers), there's still discretion and restraint exercised here that aren't found in songbook shows like Mamma Mia!, where anything usually goes.

Mayer exercises similar caution in his direction, which demonstrates a far keener eye for subtlety and detail than his recent work in Spring Awakening: With the help of lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, he nicely approximates both the wide-open vistas of the South and the more claustrophobic confines of the north, making each stop in Duane and Molly's journey reflect their burgeoning relationship. And he finds a surprising number of uses for the red pick-up truck that's the most visible feature of Derek McLane's honky-tonk prairie set.

But his most valuable contribution is making you focus on the people above all else. Molloy and Morrison bring brightly pointed vocals and a terrific chemistry to all stages of Duane and Molly's development, but are equally compelling apart. Molloy seems to age a good 30 years, transforming from itinerant youth into world-weary recluse as naturally as she does gradually; Morrison slowly doffs Duane's mantle of inscrutability to reveal a man as serious about improving life as he is living it on his own terms. While Sudduth shines as Duane's clear-minded Army buddy, his other characters are less consistently rendered.

Winningham, however, is a true gem as the American Earth Mother who gently nudges along Duane and Molly's affair. Appearing as (among others) a waitress at a roadside dive, Duane's brusque but loving mother, or Molly's pie-making, make-do aunt, Winningham warmly epitomizes the soul of the working class so central to defining both Bunin and Griffin's work.

Whether singing "Making Pies," about the strangely fulfilling drudgery of life on the assembly line, or strutting through the inebriating "Love Throw a Line" in a drunken stupor, she connects with the joys and sorrows of everyday life as though they were members of her own family. As 10 Million Miles is itself about the creation of a new family from humor and strife alike, Winningham's performance - like so much of the rest of the show - ensures you always feel right at home.

10 Million Miles
Through July 15
Atlantic Theater Company at The Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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