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See Rock City & Other Destinations

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Sally Wilfert, Mamie Parris, and Donna Lynne Champlin.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Summer and economic downturns do not go happily hand in hand. After all, what are June, July, and August if not opportunities to explore the beauty of the world at its brightest with your friends and family? A lack of money keeping you homebound when you'd rather be drinking in all the United States has to offer is almost a tragedy—but one that's at least partially unavoidable this year. Transport Group's new production of the musical See Rock City & Other Destinations, which just opened at the Duke on 42nd Street, is so wide ranging in terms of locations and emotions alike, that it's more like a sea-to-shining-sea road trip than an evening at the theatre.

But Brad Alexander and Adam Mathias's show—which won both the Richard Rodgers and Jerry Bock Awards, and was produced at the Berkshires' Barrington Stage Company in 2008—is not merely a heartless musical travelogue. It captures the uniquely optimistic American spirit that typifies both its great places and the people who live in and visit them. The constant theme is love, of course, but not always of the romantic kind: The violent caring that can exist within families; the love of possibility; the love of friends; and, in the sweeping finale, love of self—all receive their fair due in six stunningly diverse scenes.

The first, from which the collection derives its name, finds the itinerant Jess (Bryce Ryness) picking up a waitress (Mamie Parris) from a roadside diner and taking her to the fabled Rock City of Tennessee that all the local barn roofs insist he experience. At the Alamo, an ailing grandfather (Ryan Hilliard) arrives to relive his own most formative romance, while inspiring a new one in his granddaughter Lauren (Sally Wilfert). Three sisters (Parris, Wilfert, and Donna Lynne Champlin) cruise Alaska's Glacier Bay to spread their father's ashes, and reform bonds they thought they'd broken long ago. Two high-school friends, Cutter and Rick (Ryness and Stanley Bahorek), cut school to spend a fateful day in Coney Island, where they learn more about themselves than they expected. A bride-to-be (Champlin) explores the mythical nature of Niagara Falls with the help of a strangely sinister tour guide (Jonathan Hammond). And Evan (Bahorek) makes a pilgrimage to Roswell, New Mexico, on the night he's convinced its fabled aliens will make their return appearance.

The actors may recycle between playlets—and quite effectively—but they're all that do. Composer Alexander and librettist-lyricist Mathias give each chapter a sound and feel tightly befitting its content, and they all relate only in the spiritual freedom they express or demand. The soaring "Rock City" evokes the dust and endless potential of the country's arterial thoroughfares, while "Q Train to Coney Island" and "Niagara Falls—the Tour" more breathlessly describe journeys more compact in nature. Evan's "We Are Not Alone" and "Here" tackle his crippling intellectual devotion with a beguiling intensity. Softer numbers, particularly in the Alamo Scene, mourn the way time erodes features both geologic and psychological. There's even a genuinely charming comedy number in "Three Fair Queens," in which the Alaska women remember their songwriting father's crowning composition. The band (led by musical director and orchestrator Justin Hatchimonji) beautifully summons up the energy necessary to sell the score's finest pop radio–meets–folk music qualities.

Stanley Bahorek and Bryce Ryness.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Each of the actors is granted several standout moments. Among them: Bahorek is riotous as Evan in full watching-the-aliens mode, but haunting as Rick confronts his changing relationship with Cutter later; Wilfert is all aching warmth as Lauren, as is the radiant Champlin as the increasingly frazzled bride on the (literal and figurative) precipice of her life. But everyone embodies their adventurous characters in highly pleasing straightforward, honest, and uncluttered ways.

The same cannot be unequivocally said of the production surrounding them. Director Jack Cummings III may have helped plumb the play's subjects for their emotional yearnings, but has devised two strategies for dealing with the show's whirlwind nature that are both messy.

First, a visual concept (executed by scenic designer Dane Laffrey, who also did the costumes) that has stripped out the theater's usual seats and stage, and put the audience and the actors in the same, large, vacant playing space. While not necessarily a bad idea, forcing the audience to sit on lawn chairs (yes, really) to watch the action unfold around and, in several cases, above them, is. It creates numerous sight-line problems, regardless of where in the arena-style layout you end up, and creates problems for the scaffolding-style wheeled platform (housing several of R. Lee Kennedy's most important lighting instruments) that becomes crucial later. If the idea is to highlight the sense of informal fun, it doesn't work consistently— and I can personally verify that not every chair is comfortable, whether for the full 100-minute running time or even a 10-minute stretch.

Cummings also places the audience at an even farther remove by insisting certain actors recite key stage directions aloud—usually simultaneously with the actors performing the actions described. Aside from being both theatrically and stylistically unnecessary (the writing, paired with even a modest-budget staging, is utterly clear on its own), it forces you to remember that you're watching dramatic constructs and not actual people. While this device can be used effectively—as Tarrell Alvin McCraney showed in The Brothers Size (though the full-length The Brother/Sister Plays overdid it a bit)—the writers must etch it into the spirit of their work. The copy of the script I received offered no indication that Alexander and Mathias had wanted any such thing.

This choice suggests lack of complete trust in the work to tell its own story, but it's all about See Rock City & Other Destinations that does. When allowed to be itself, the musical unfolds and affects much as America itself does, convincing you that the theater—like the country—is someplace where anything really can happen, and will if given a long enough stretch of open road.

See Rock City & Other Destinations
Through August 8
Duke On 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Duke On 42nd Street

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