By Patrick O’Brien
If press night for August Rush is any indication of Paramount Theatre’s prospective future as a site for world premiere musical tryouts, we’ll call it a solid first go.
What transpired onstage was an exemplar of what should happen for any other companies thinking of getting into the new musicals racket. That is, the piece should prove worthy of further development while also opening up questions on how to develop it further.
To its credit, August Rush has ideal source material to it — a sentimental favorite film of many; good, but not inextricably bound to its cinematic forebear in such a way to limit changes; and, most of all, it’s inherently musical, as it follow, follow, follows a prodigious orphan busker on his quest to find his long-lost parents.
For another, John Doyle, the Great Distiller of the American Musical, is at the helm. Whether or not his actors also play instruments — what has come to be (somewhat inaccurately) considered his trademark — his stagings are often shorn of anything that could be considered “non-essential,” making for brisk productions heavy on metaphor and suggestion. He doesn’t lay it on thick, in other words, which is beneficial for what is essentially a fairy tale.
For a third, each writer operates in tight harmony and with each other, the director, and the material. For composer Mark Mancina, that should come easily enough — he wrote the music for the film, and the expansions he’s made on those themes, as well as the originals he’s penned here, make for a fine debut. (He has a co-composing credit on The Lion King; here, he’s going solo.) For his part, on the libretto, Glen Berger, a writer of elegantly spare plays (Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark aside), has found a match in the elegantly spare Doyle.
It’s in the elegant spareness that August Rush soars, when the storytelling is as as elemental as two people making their own music, literal and metaphorical, best exemplified in the simplest scenes, especially when the orphan Evan (Jack McCarthy on press night) is left to his musical reverie.
Doubly so for scenes with those long-lost parents: George Abud (on oud) as an increasingly dispirited rocker, and Sydney Shepherd (on cello) as an increasingly pressured recital musician. They meet when their hopes are at a nadir, share a bizarre yet tender ballad, and come together beautifully.
And, thankfully, for a musical about music, the music is positively soaring. So much so, that large swaths of the evening are told expressly through music and movement alone. Some might prefer some extra text sprinkled in there, perhaps, but Mancina’s lush melodies — in conjunction with Dave Metzger’s rich orchestrations and JoAnn M. Hunter’s choreography — are sometimes all we need.
It’s the broader, more metaphorical moments that could use some rethinking. After running away from his caretakers (or, rather, “running toward,” as he insists) and beginning to discover his talents, Evan falls under the spell of the Wizard (John Hickok), a devilish Fagin figure who rules a small band of drifting buskers through tortuous means. At the same time, the vision of Hope (Leenya Rideout) appears to Evan and tries to unlock his full potential away from the Wizard’s corrupting power.
Not that a big Miltonian battle of Good and Evil is out of place in a fairy tale, just that it doesn’t quite jibe with the gentle Campbellian hero’s quest that has previously been set up. It’s a question of dialing it back more towards fantastic realism or going all out with metaphor (preferably the former). The musical is dreamy and poetic, as well it should be, but it needs to occasionally come down to earth to play with the dreamers onstage.
That’ll be the balancing act challenge for productions going forward: injection of enough reality and specificity without losing the elegant spareness the creators want to give audiences. If they can pull off such a trick, August Rush may yet prove itself an enduring charmer.
Paramount Theatre presents “August Rush” through June 2 at 23 East Galena Boulevard, Aurora. More information and tickets are available here.