Regional Reviews: San Diego
Homer Hickman (Kyle Selig) is a student at the local high school in Coalwood, West Virginia. It's a company town: the principal (Nick Sullivan) has been told that the students need only enough education to prepare them for work in the coal mining operation that's run by Homer's father (Ron Bohmer). Homer's teacher (Sandra DeNise) wants more than that for her class, but finding a way to get her students excited about learning is a challenge. An opportunity comes when the Soviet Union launches Sputnik, the first satellite to reach earth orbit. Sputnik is set to be visible in the sky one night, and the whole town turns out to watch.
Homer becomes excited about building a rocket and recruits a crew of fellow students (Austyn Myers, Patrick Rooney, and Connor Russell) to help him. He also gets help from the mine's metal craftsman (Joel Blum), who machines several versions of the rocket that Homer's team designs. An even stronger motivation comes when Homer's brother, Jim (Liam Quealy), earns a football scholarship and college suddenly starts to look as though it might be within reach. Homer's team turns its attention toward preparing for a series of science fairs, knowing that if it could win the national competition there would be college scholarships as prizes.
Guess what happens? I thought you could.
The show apparently had book troubles, and they haven't been completely resolved. Marsha Norman was announced to have been added to the book's authorship (the original was penned by Marriott Theatre's Artistic Director, Aaron Thielen), but by the time the production reached the stage, Brian Hill (The Story of My Life) had the lead author credit. The book could be trimmer (the show runs two hours and forty minutes), and some of the plot developments rest on tried-and-true devices that register an "ouch" when they appeared. The story seems to follow the 1999 film version fairly closely, which, in turn, closely followed Homer Hickam, Jr.'s 1998 memoir "Rocket Boys." (Mr. Hickam, who has his own musical version of the book, is locked in a rights dispute with Universal; The Old Globe is not involved, and the credit in the program reads "inspired by" the other two works.)
Chicago-based composer Michael Mahler is responsible for the melodic, easy-listening, score, which feature more than a few tinges of country music and early rock 'n' roll. He's written a nice variety of songs for solo singers, groups, and especially several ensemble numbers that are stunningly beautiful (credit music director Charlie Alterman, too).
The large cast performs con brio under Rachel Rockwell's direction and choreography. It takes a while for Mr. Selig to emerge from the pack, but once he takes the lead his energy and his glowing high tenor bring the cast together. As the student crew that becomes the rocketry team, Messrs. Myers, Rooney and Russell each create unique personalities that probably shouldn't fit togetheruntil they do. Mr. Blum stands out in support (and is the victim of one of the book's "ouch" moments).
The Marriott Theatre is an in-the-round facility, so the production had to be redesigned for The Old Globe's proscenium space. And that redesign is up to New York standards, starting with Kevin Depinet's scenic design and going right down the line with Linda Cho's costumes, Japhy Weideman's lighting, Shawn Sagady's projections, and especially Garth Helm's sound design, which expertly mixes a large group of singers with a nine-piece off-stage orchestra.
"Feel-good" shows are often winners with audiences, and October Sky feels good all over.
October Sky performs October 23, 2016, Tuesday through Sunday evenings, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday afternoons at The Old Globe's Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage in San Diego's Balboa Park. Tickets are available by calling (619) 23-GLOBE [234-5623] or by visiting www.theoldglobe.org.
The cast also features Kerry O'Malley, Rebecca Bellingham, Will Branner, James Royce Edwards, Steve Gouveia, Kevyn Morrow, Destan Owens, Eliza Palasz, Lance Arthur Smith, Betsy Stewart, Nicolette Burton, John Cardoza, Clay Stefanki, Scott Wakefield, and Angela Wildflower.