Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2008
“What are you afraid of?”
In the case of the characters presented in See Rock City and Other Destinations by Adam Mathias (book and lyrics) and Brad Alexander (music) the answers all have to do with personal relationships. These people are afraid to move or stand still, to marry, to commit, to say good-bye, to be alone, to face their sexuality and sexual preference.
You can tell this is a show written by young people. Older people have very different set of things to be afraid of.
Mathias and Alexander use popular tourist destinations – Rock City*, The Alamo, Glacier Bay (Alaska), Coney Island; Niagara Falls, and Roswell (New Mexico), as springboards and metaphors for what really are six mini-musicals, linked by that one haunting question: What are you afraid of?
It is the first line in the play, and it struck me immediately. What a bold beginning! It caught my attention at once. And I decided that what I was going to see would be the travels of the young waitress Dodi (Gwen Hollander) who spoke it and the resteless young wanderer Jess, (Benjamin Schrader) to whom it was spoken. I was wrong, and when their scene ended and the action moved to a man named Evan (Wesley Taylor) who had given up his job and girlfriend for a chance to sit at the coordinates 33.39 N, 104.53 W in Roswell because he was certain that this was the place and the night and the time when the aliens would land, I felt gypped. I had just invested time and energy in these two characters and then they were gone. Damn!
They did come back at the end, and in the interim Hollander and Schrader each played another interesting role, but I wonder if I would have felt less cross at that first transition point if at the very beginning I had been introduced to the whole cast, the way they all appeared together at the end. If that had happened I think I would have been mentally better prepared for the structure of the show.
I realize at this juncture someone might point out that I could have prepared myself by reading the program. Well, you’ve discovered my dirty little secret. I rarely read the program before I see a show. I do read advance publicity, but by the time I get to the theatre I am all about the experience. There is plenty of time to read the program later, when the names and information mean something to me.
So I sat there ready to absorb whatever was thrown before me, and consequently I wasn’t ready to have to let go of Dodi and Jess after the first three songs.
After we leave Dodi and Jess and Evan has made his first appearance, the next scene takes place at the Alamo, where we meet Lauren (Cassie Wooley) and her grandfather (John Jellison) and their annual trip to the site where the grandparents first met. Grampy is wheelchair bound, has a tremor and his speech cannot be understood by anyone but his granddaughter, but he is all there mentally. She is a 30-something, unmarried school teacher. While Grampy waits to see his late wife and soul-mate, something he alone can experience, Lauren strikes up a conversation with a young lawyer named Dempsey (David Rossmer). In the course of the scene it is implied that Lauren and Dempsey are the next generation of soul-mates to meet at The Alamo.
In Crossing Glacier Bay three sisters – Lily (Hollander), Judy (Wooley) and Claire (Jill Abramovitz) – prepare to scatter their father’s ashes over the side of the cruise ship they have taken to Alaska. While they clearly love each other, they don’t get along, and the scene is about them finding a way to reconnect and say good-bye to their last parent.
Coney Island Spook House follows two Dalton** boys – Cutter (Schrader) and Eric (Taylor) – as they cut class and head to Coney Island where a trip through the Spook House ride (manned hilariously by Jellison and Rossmer) changes their lives.
The show concludes at Niagara Falls, where a Runaway Bride named Kate (Abramovitz) faces her fears of marriage and commitment.
While I was enjoying See Rock City and Other Destinations I kept being reminded of other shows. The title, of course, reminded me of See Rock City by Arlene Hutton which I saw at Chester in 2005. Evan sitting out waiting for his flying saucer reminded me of R.R. Snavley in the Tuna plays, who finally gets taken aboard and flown far, far away from the third smallest town in Texas on Christmas Eve. And the Niagara Falls sequence reminded me of David Lindsay Abaire’s Wonder of the World which Barrington Stage presented in 2006 and in which our heroine actually does choose to go over the falls in a barrel.
Now the problem here may be that I see WAY too much theatre, or that Mathaias and Alexander don’t see enough, but instead of being surprised and intrigued by new images and ideas, I kept thinking, “Oh, yeah! That’s just like...”
The two scenes with ideas that did strike me as fresh were Remember the Alamo and Crossing Glacier Bay. In the former I enjoyed seeing an elderly and disabled man presented with dignity and humor – like a human being and not an object of pity. I liked that his granddaughter stood by him and loved him and did not see him as a burden but as an important part of her life.
While I am sure there is at least one play out there (that I have yet to see) in which three squabbling sisters set about to dispose of the remains of a parent, the musical element made Crossing Glacier Bay special. This father wrote songs for his daughters to sing, and, while they found that slightly embarrassing (what child doesn’t find their parent mortifying from time to time?) it is also a source of pride and solidarity for them. No one else knows Three Fair Queens of the North and in its charming simplicity it embodies the love this family shared.
Coney Island Spook House was the most visceral of the scenes and Schrader and Taylor were excellent as the preppy teens facing questions of their own sexuality for the first time. I loved the rhythms in Q Train to Coney Island and the rhymes in You Are My... (the ellipsis is a courtesy, standing in for “bitch,” a word that some publications could or would not print.) Of all the new musicals I have heard recently, Q Train... is the only tune to have captured my heart and mind so completely. I can’t wait for the CD!
Director Kevin Del Aguila has assembled a fine young ensemble cast, each of whom sing well and bring a particular spark to the roles they play. And then there is veteran actor/singer John Jellison who has appeared in the original casts of Assassins, Sunday in the Park with George, Paul Simon’s The Capeman, The Phantom of the Opera,...I could go on and on. Experience is a great teacher and the combination of Jellison’s natural talents and his experience make him an outstanding performer. It is a real treat to have him in the Berkshires and Mathias and Alexander are blessed to have an artist of his caliber associated with their show.
Although this show is billed as being “fully produced” the sets by Brian Prather are minimal and the musical accompaniment is provided by one piano played by Music Director Vadim Feichtner. I wonder if some of the projected images that formed the backdrop for the scenes didn’t fail the afternoon I attended because it felt like, for a travelogue, there were painfully few images of the icon landscapes the characters were supposed to be visiting.
Of the three offerings of the BSC Musical Theatre Lab this summer (the first was The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, and the second, My Scary Girl, was not open for review) I think See Rock City and Other Destinations shows the most future promise in its current state. I think it needs a new title and some structural tweaking, but Mathias and Alexander obviously have a burgeoning creative partnership, and if this show doesn’t make it, their a future effort surely will.
The Barrington Stage Company Musical Theatre Lab production of the See Rock City & Other Destinations runs through August 23 at the new Stage 2 space, The VFW Hall, 36 Linden Street in Pittsfield, MA. The show runs an hour and twenty minutes with no intermission and is suitable for ages 14 and up.
Barrington Stage Company's Musical Theatre Lab performance schedule: Wednesday through Friday at 7:30pm, Saturday at 4pm and 8pm, Sunday at 7:30pm. Tickets are $15 for the first two previews on August 8 and 9; while other performances are $25-$30. Student/Senior tickets for the Sat. at 4pm matinees are $15; Pay What You Can Night for 35&'s and Under, Friday, August 8 at 7:30pm. For tickets contact the Barrington Stage Company Box Office at 413-236-8888. For further information, visit www.barringtonstageco.org.
*When I reviewed “See Rock City” at Chester, I was such a Yankee that I had never heard of Rock City, Tennessee, a tourist attraction opened in 1932 by entrepreneur Garnet Carter atop Lookout Mountain, just six miles from downtown Chattanooga. The Web site bills it as “a true marvel of nature featuring massive ancient rock formations, gardens with over 400 native plant species, and breathtaking ‘See 7 States’ panoramic views.” This was Carter’s hedge against the Great Depression and, to get the word out, he enlisted the help of a young sign painter named Clark Byers, who painted “See Rock City” on the roofs of barns as far north as Michigan and as far west as Texas. Now those rooftop signs are more famous than Rock City itself.
** The Dalton School is an college preparatory co-ed independent day school for grades K-12 in Manhattan with an interesting Berkshire connection. It was founded in 1919 by Helen Parkhurst and named after the town of Dalton, MA, where Parkhurst’s benefactor Josephine Porter Boardman and her husband Winthrop Murray Crane had their estate “Sugar Hill.” Under the Cranes’ auspices, Parkhurst pioneered her Laboratory Plan in the public high school in Dalton in 1916.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008
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