By Barry Reszel
Once more, Chicagoland musical theatre patrons are given the honor of an invitation to sit on the launching pad of a world premiere musical with a legitimate shot to reach the industry’s highest heights.
Recent such offerings have included eventual Best Musical Tony winner Kinky Boots, Sting’s The Last Ship, current Broadway mega extravaganza Amazing Grace, Chicago Shakes’ Sense & Sensibility and Drury Lane’s just closed phenomenon Beaches, to name just a few.
True aficionados ought not take opportunities like these lightly. For God’s sake, people, it’s not an invite to a second cousin’s wedding, and it won’t run the price of a Waterford goblet.
So do not think twice. Mentally RSVP yes; physically buy a ticket; pick up another for a friend; and get to Lincolnshire’s Marriott Theatre’s two-month launch party for the out of this world October Sky.
This tender new musical from local talents Aaron Thielen (book) and Michael Mahler (music and lyrics) has skyrocketing potential. It’s based on the wonderful 1999 movie starring young Jake Gyllenhaal and lovely Laura Dern. The film adaptation comes from the 1998 autobiography of NASA engineer Homer H. Hickam, Jr., Rocket Boys. October Sky is an anagram of the original title, harkening back to a radio description of the Soviet spaceship Sputnik as it crossed the October sky in 1957. Universal Studios changed the title in the belief it would attract a wider audience, and the book was re-released with the name to capitalize on interest in the movie.
Thielen’s book is painstakingly true to the movie script, detailing Hickam and friends’ maddeningly average high school existences in small town West Virginia until an attentive and caring teacher turns them from destined lives in the coal mine to national science fair winners, college scholarship recipients and, most importantly, believers in their dreams.
The central back story revolves around Hickam’s coal miner-turned-management father, a depleting West Virginia mine and a mother who never pursued her own dreams of a better life than the one she lives. A full plot synopsis of October Sky may be read here.
Mahler’s wonderful, country-laden score is an exquisite blend of ballad, soft rock and anthem that enhances the October Sky experience for fans of the book and movie and is sure to create enthusiasts among those coming to the compelling story for the first time. The nine-member Bluegrass band led by Patti Garwood provides the absolute perfect accompaniment. Among the many musical highlights, teacher Miss Riley’s “Something That’s Divine” is destined for regular airtime on Seth Rudetsky’s Sirius XM show On Broadway. “Marching into Hell,” “Never Getting Out Alive,” “Look to the Stars,” “Hey Did You Hear,” “Solid Ground,” “Stars Shine Down” and “The Man I Met” are titles to particularly listen for.
Brilliant Director Rachel Rockwell leads the inspired world premiere cast, featuring dashing Nat Lewellyn as Homer and perfectly cast Johanna McKenzie Miller as Miss Riley. Alex Weisman is wonderfully memorable as nerd friend and fellow rocketeer Quentin. Susan Moniz and David Hess are stellar as Homer’s parents as is Derek Hasenstab as Mr. Bykovski, the mine’s machinist who helps the boys pursue their dreams. Joined by Homer friend Roy Lee (Patrick Rooney) and his stepfather Vernon (Neil Friedman), these “no small roles” are critically important characters, integral to October Sky’s real focus—authentic, meaningful relationships (father/son, husband/wife, teacher/student, friend/friend) and common experience foundational to any pursuit of dreams.
This production’s acting, singing and limited choreography are all first rate, and Theresa Ham’s period costumes are exquisite. Thomas M. Ryan’s effectively minimalist stage design is necessary for Marriott’s theatre-in-the-round setting. His miner’s shaft is particularly interesting, and the effects used for the boys’ rocket launches, while not overly impressive, are certainly adequate.
All this said, this production is a Mercury flight with an eye to an eventual Apollo moon landing. Truly dramatic sets, stunning effects (preferably on a large proscenium stage) and some honest, painful editing (particularly in the first act) are among the elements necessary for such a lunar launch. Once they happen, the sky’s the limit.
But that’s for a future launchpad. The present invitation is to join in the inaugural liftoff of what just might be the next great American family musical. There isn’t a reason on earth not to attend.
“October Sky” is presented at Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, through October 11. Tickets ($50-$55 with some dinner packages available) are available here www.MarriottTheatre.com or by phone at 847-634-0200. Parking is complimentary.