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Songs of the Open Road

By James Yeara

See Rock City and Other Destinations

Book and lyrics by Adam Mathias, music by Brad Alexander, directed by Kevin Del Aguila, music direction by Vadim Feichtner

Barrington Stage Company, Stage 2, Pittsfield, Mass., through Aug. 26

The world premiere of See Rock City and Other Destinations is the latest offering in Barrington Stage Company’s excellent Musical Theatre Lab, a 100-seat studio space for new musicals under the award-winning composer William Finn’s artistic direction. See Rock City’s series of musical sketches captures the kitschy delights of road trip warriors—the angst, pain, longings and hopes of everyday people. The focus is (mostly) on the quotidian characters, the singing, and the acting. This isn’t a capitalized Musical for audiences enamored of spectacle, set to swelling scores and thumping beats; it is a lower-case musical that, while not folksy in genre, sings of real people to real people. See Rock City pleases most because it (mostly) eschews pretension and keeps its heart in the right place.

With a single piano accompaniment and a simple but effective set (a large rectangle screen, like a windshield, upstage center that is filled by a series of photographs to establish the locale, and two flats downstage left and right covered with license plates from various states), the seven scenes and 16 songs of See Rock City clip along at under 90 minutes with no intermission.

The picturesque music leaps from locale to locale. See Rock City opens in “a diner, somewhere in the Carolinas” where 20-something loner Jess (Benjamin Schrader) pores over a map book, ignoring the dinner that Dodi (Gwen Hollander), his 20-something loner waitress, has set down for him. The ensuing song explores his dreams about the wonderous “Rock City”—“Answer to every prayer/Come on and see Rock City!/You can be happy there!” So infectious is Jess’ hope that Dodi leaves her job mid-order to travel with him, her big-tooth grin as much an invitation as Jess’ crooked smile, and the pair whiz along the road to Rock City, singing “I Can Tell,” a sort of “Getting to Know You” with a faster beat, livelier lyrics, and a lot more humor: “I can tell you like to be prepared:/Flashlight, condoms . . . OK, now I’m scared/Little things tend to say a lot: a sewing kit/A bag of pot.” The budding interest builds between the two and with the audience. You start to care, and want to know what’s next.

The play shifts from place to place and time to time and character to character. In Roswell, N.M., Evan (Wesley Talylor) waits all alone to record the precise moment of first contact while recording his hopes and slights and losses over his alien obsession. At the Alamo, dutiful granddaughter Lauren (Cassie Wooley) pushes her stroke-affected Grampy (John Jellison) on an annual visit to celebrate the meeting of Grampy and his now-departed wife. In Glacier Bay, Alaska, three sisters—Lily (Hollander), Claire (Jill Abramovitz), and Judy (Wooley)—bicker and then bond over their father’s ashes before scattering them on the bay. At Coney Island, two teen boys discover that they are gay in the Spook House. In Niagara Falls, runaway bride Kate (Abramovitz) meets a metaphysical tour guide (David Rossmer) who shows her that everyone has someone they’re running away from.

The strongest sketches capture everyday humor, melancholy, and hope—no matter how small. The third scene, “Remember the Alamo,” had more than a few people in the audience wiping away tears and unsuccessfully stifling sobs. The two songs in the sketch, “All There Is to Say” and “Grampy’s Song,” held a sweet, defiant sadness in the first and a powerful triumph in the latter, making “Remember the Alamo” both crowd pleasing and honest. The elements of hokeyness are there, but the performances—particularly John Jellison’s rich baritone—make it believable.

The other standout sketch is “Crossing Glacier Bay.” The biting comments, hurt feelings, shifting allegiances, and ultimate uniting to fulfill their father’s final request will move anyone who has experienced sibling rivalry or has the empathy to recall their own fathers. As with “Remember the Alamo,” “Crossing Glacier Bay” has all the dangers of sentimentality latent in the scenario, but the staging, acting, and singing, especially of the initially childhood song “Three Fair Queens,” which the three 30-something daughters act out with childhood choreography, building energy and commitment that made me long to see the full musical of Three Fair Queens.

Wisely, creators Adam Mathias and Brad Alexander haven’t written that. But See Rock City and Other Destinations stands as a worthy reason to drive to Pittsfield and take in the wonders of BSC’s Musical Theatre Lab.

 


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