See Rock City & Other Destinations, book and lyrics by Adam Mathias, music by Brad Alexander. Directed by Kevin Del Aguila.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Yes, I know every look on your face, Every gesture and every sign..."
"New" doesn’t come to mind. Sweet, fun, nicely done - those words apply when describing "See Rock City..." but not "new." Six musical sketches comprise this 93 minute review of quirky people in quirky places and a cast of seven talented players are performing it frequently on Barrington Stage Company’s second stage at the old VFW hall in Pittsfield, MA. The final entry in this year’s musical theater lab exposes some talented writers who seem to be caught in a rut left by the squealing tires of other, older musicals that often dealt with the same sorts of stories.
"33.39 N.,, 104.53 W," for example - the second, fourth and seventh sketches, deals with a man who has abandoned girlfriend, home, job, friends and family to wait in a plastic strapped folding chair outside of Roswell, New Mexico for the aliens he is sure will return there. He has a tape deck to record the event and his reactions, a miner’s helmet to see through the night, and to shine a spotlight on himself as he waits and records the smallest sounds and shifts of late-night lighting. He gets to sing "We Are Not Alone" many times and he makes his point easily. But I’ve seen this before. I know I have, and if I cannot exactly pinpoint the where and when it is something I have seen and it feels like something old, not something new.
The title sketch, about a drifter with a mind that screams "fried on drugs" convinces an ambivalent waitress that the map he possesses will lead them to Rock City, a place-name scrawled on the tin roofs of many bars in the southeast. She throws over her job and whatever life she has outside the luncheonette and goes with him. When they find the place she can see magical aspects, but can only see rocks. The wanderlust theme here gets lost in memories of other, recent shows that have presented it better: Spitfire Grill, for example.
There are three fascinating pieces in the six and they could become the core of a much better show: "Remember the Alamo," "Crossing Glacier Bay," and "Greetings From Niagara." Expanded into fuller acts they could be an interesting three-act musical, or just be surrounded by better, more interesting material than they have now.
Luckily for audiences that see this version of this show, there are fine talents at work on all of the material, good or mediocre as the case may be. John Jellison, for example, plays Grampy in the "Alamo" play. He is an old man severely handicapped by a stroke who is returning for his yearly visit to the Texas shrine. It was the place where he met his true love, his long-dead wife, and heard an angelic promise of true love. His granddaughter is his shepherd and on this particular annual occasion she meets a man at the same place where her forebears met. A lawyer named Dempsey, played by David Rossmer, helps the girl out in a crisis and finds himself tongue-tied but fascinated by her. She is unsure.
Jellison is divine as the stricken man whose inner voice creates beautiful music. Rossmer is endearing as the fumbling young man who says things awkwardly. As the girl, Lauren, the company gives us Cassie Wooley who plays insensitivity with more sensitivity than should be allowed. She gives a moving, strong performance in this piece.
The show’s three women inhabit the Glacier Bay story. Three sisters are trying to dispose of their dead father’s ashes on an Alaskan cruise but complications in their relationships with him and with one another keep getting in the way. In spite of that brief synopsis let me assure you that this is the funny sketch. Wooley plays the scattered sister whose emotions keep getting the better of her. Jill Abramovitz plays the one whose personality chills even the Alaskan waters and Gwen Hollander is the sweet girl who holds this family together. All three are just perfect in these roles.
Abramovitz is a bride on the run in the "Niagara" story and Rossmer is her personal tour guide. The frenzy of this piece and the pent-up anger which drives both characters makes this a fascinating road to take. Both actors are at their best in this work.
Then there is "Coney Island Spook House" in which two teenagers on a run-away day from school discover painful truths about themselves and each other. The outcome of their contemporary music play is a Brokeback Mountain twist that is both uncomfortable and inevitable and too easy to anticipate in spite of some fine playing by Benjamin Schrader and Wesley Taylor (on a pass from his Rosswell duties).
If the two framework pieces were as good as the others than this patchwork evening of mini-musicals might have been more successful.
Brian Prather has done a fine job of creating the scenic splendors for this show using projections and pieces instead of more concrete forms. Mark Mariani has a neat way with contemporary character clothing and David F. Segal makes the most of his lighting touches, each of them just right for the particular story. Vadim Feichtner does just fine as the orchestra (piano off right).
Del Aguila, the director, moves his company perfectly in and out of each tale and establishes interesting relationships between, or among, his characters. Better material would benefit from his eye, his vision of how the show moves.
In spite of its two big awards, this show is not the show it could be or should be. There are obviously good talents at work, but when a show without an intermission that is both actable and musical provides not one musical memory to take away, it needs more work.
Gwen Hollander and Benjamin Schrader in "See Rock City;" photo: Kevin Sprague
David Rossmer, John Jellison and Cassie Wooley in "Remember the Alamo;" photo: Kevin Sprague
Jill Abramovitz in "Greetings from Niagara;" photo: Kevin Sprague
See Rock City & Other Destinations plays at the Stage Two theater in Pittsfield on Linden Street through August 26. Tickets are $15-$30. For schedules and to book tickets call the box office at 413-236-8888.