Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
It's fitting that seeing Road Trip! requires a bit of a journey by car, but it's an undeniably lovely one, taking you into the Sonoma wine country to the Winery Ruins at Jack London State Park in Glen Ellen, a gorgeous venue enclosed by high stone walls, with expansive views of the surrounding hills. The setting is made even lovelier by the fact that once you are in your seat, the two hours (with an intermission) that unfold before you are filled with impassioned performances, energetic choreography, and terrific songs sung by a talented cast backed by a stellar quintet.
Transcendence bills their productions as "the best night ever." While your mileage may vary (I have no idea how you've been spending your nights), it's safe to say they aren't very far off that mark. With TTC, you can count on everything running at close to perfection: From pre-show communications to efficient parking and check-in to the lovely picnic setup (tables can be reserved for $50, but reservations go fast) and VIP area to the warm and sincere greetings and service every member of the team provides to guests, it all combines for a truly delightful experience.
And that's not even considering the show itself. Road Trip! is a journey across the USA and back, with "stops" at three dozen-plus songs that run the gamut: patriotic ballads, sweet pop hits, hard-hitting soul and blues, R&B, Disney tunes, country, American Songbook classics. Somehow director/choreographer Jessica Lee Coffman (ably assisted by conceiver/musical director Susan Draus, associate musical director Matt Smart, and assistant musical director Alejandro Senior Weinberger), has managed to create a set list that not only has something for everyone, but also brings added depth to each number through choreography that reinforces the mood of each song, or the story it tells.
Coffman uses her cast to tremendous effect, finding new ways to group themfrom a solo turn on "Rocky Mountain High" to a quartet backed only by bass guitar for a tightly harmonic take on the classic "Route 66" to the full cast bringing it home for "Dancin' in the Streets"with the result being that we are never bored. Unlike the unfortunate situation at the previous TTC production My Hero, in which the performers clearly couldn't always hear themselves singing, resulting in some egregious pitchiness, there is no such issue this time around, with each cast member's voice shimmering atop the brilliant musical backdrop provided by the band. Their precise harmonies, energetic belting, and sweet crooning are on display from the first song (a rendering of "My Country" that would almost have seemed jingoistic if not for the sincerity of the performances) to the last (James Brown's "Living in America").
Along the way are stops where cast members Arielle Crosby, Belinda Allyn, Maria Bilbao and Meggie Cansler Ness absolutely slay on En Vogue's "Free Your Mind," and Kyle Kemph displays a voice far bigger than his small frame would suggest. (Note to producers, Kyle would be a perfect choice to play Elder Price in a production of The Book of Mormon.) There is a sweet moment when the acoustic guitar intro to America's "Ventura Highway" elicits an audible sigh of recognition/nostalgia from the audience, and a darkly funny moment when the women sing "Stepsister's Lament" from Cinderella with a lovingly acrid hint of bile and rancor: "She's a frothy little bubble with a flimsy kind of charm and with very little trouble I could break her little arm."
Despite being an absolute truckload of fun, there are hints of a higher purpose at work. After all, TTC's mission statement includes the goal to "inspire all to cherish life and live it to the fullest." There are subtle shout-outs to the importance of equality and diversity as well as the more plainspoken "road trip credo" that pledges allegiance to "radical love" and encourages "creating an inclusive nation built on selfless allyship" with the goal of "one humanity, with access to liberty and justice for all." That said, Road Trip! is only mildly political, and when it is, it's always in service of greater unity.
But underlying this laudable goal of uplifting community and providing inspiration is a show that provides a wonderful break from the stress and tumult we have all been feeling, taking us to a place of joy and laughter and romance and humanity, even if only for a few hours. But that's enough. At least for now. Because this Road Trip! is one you wish would last and last. "Are we there yet?" No, but we're sure enjoying the ride.
>Road Trip! plays Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings for the next two weekends, August 20-22 and 27-29, 2021, with shows at 7:30 p.m. in the Winery Ruins at Jack London State Park, 2400 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen CA. Ticket range from $40-$129; the top ticket includes VIP parking, two glasses of wine and admission to the pre-show lounge. Tickets and additional information can be found at www.TranscendenceTheatre.org.