Music and Lyrics by Michael Mahler
Directed by Rachel Rockwell
Music Direction by Ryan T. Nelson
Produced by The Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire
In Association with Universal Stage Productions
A Heart-Warming Story about Intellectual Pursuits
Even had Rachel Rockwell not recently directed Billy Elliot at Drury Lane, it would be impossible not to connect it with October Sky, the new musical adapted from a movie about West Virginia mining town kids building their own rockets. However, October Sky does do one thing quite differently, which is that while Billy Elliot presented the titular child’s interest in ballet as liberating him from the emotionally repressive working class gender roles in a way the arts are typically praised for, October Sky focuses on the deep-seated emotional fulfillment provided by science. The new musical’s greatest strength is that it is a heart-warming story which, while conventional in its basic outline, is unusual in its sentimental appreciation for intellectual pursuits. That likely comes from the movie (which is based on the autobiographical novel Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam), but with some more work, this stage adaptation could fully harness the talent of its artists to present a story that I know some nerdy theatre-goers have long been excited for.
It’s 1957, and the Soviets have just launched Sputnik. In Coalwood, where the teenage Homer (Nate Lewellyn) lives, this humanistic advance is cause for terror and rage among all but a few of the inhabitants, who were already on edge due to the decline of the industry they depend on. Homer’s father, John (David Hess,) is a manager, and has been required to lay off some of the workers, his childhood friends, and the fathers of the other children. Nonetheless, he envisions mining as his younger son’s future, and Homer reluctantly takes for granted that he’s right. After all, as he says to his friends, for there to be any point in leaving, you have to get a scholarship, and for that to happen, you have to play football or be smart. But when Sputnik passes over the town one night, Homer is inspired to build his own rocket, mostly as a desperate attempt to win his father’s admiration, and demonstrate some kind of connection to the rest of the world.
The first experiment does not succeed. Homer enlists his friends, O’Dell (Ben Barker) and Roy Lee (Patrick Rooney) to assist him, but they still need people who are capable of designing and building rockets. Fortunately, Homer at least has personality and connections to contribute, and convinces the unpopular brainiac Quentin (Alex Weisman) to lead them, and the company machinist Ike Bykovski (Derek Hasenstab) to steal materials and teach him enough basic welding for their purpose. The townsfolk are generally frightened by the rockets and skeptical of ambition, but a teacher, Ms. Riley (Johanna McKenzie Miller), sponsors the boys for a science fair. Tensions are thick between Homer and his father, and worsen after a mining accident, in which John is injured, and Homer works in the mine to support the family in his absence. The rocket project must be put on hold, and now that Homer is finally in the mines, his father presents him with an ultimatum: either give up the rockets or their relationship.
The actors are an appealing group, particularly the main four boys. Though O’Dell and Roy Lee are minor characters in the scheme of things, mainly useful for mixing fuel, Roy Lee, at least, is developed consistently as a sympathetic figure and victim of his subculture’s toxic attitudes. As Quentin, Alex Weisman possesses a stereotypical nasally voice and catch-phrase, but is a fully realized person, and one of the most inspiring figures in the play. Actually, one of the script’s biggest problems is that were it not based on Homer Hickam’s autobiography, he would never have been the protagonist. At one point, once the rocket project is already underway, Quentin says he needs Homer to stay with them, and I nearly asked out loud “why?” And while Nate Lewellyn is likable, and carries Homer’s emotional journey, including a few heart-raising moments of triumph, he mostly sings in his head-voice and pushes too hard.
The show describes Michael Mahler’s score as “a combination of Appalachian mountain music, early rock and roll, and folk rhythms.” The reactions it provoked from the audience varied widely, apparently based on their familiarity with actual folk music. I found the songs inoffensive, but was relieved to see the show had nine reprises and I wasn’t just going crazy to think everything sounded similar. The best and folksiest song is a weird late-show moment entitled “Moonshine,” led by James Earl Jones II in his only significant scene, about the ingredient the boys finally stumble upon to perfect their fuel. The worst is an argument between Homer’s father and mother (Susan Moniz) that devolves into them screaming over each other, and isn’t helped by its paint-by-numbers part in advancing the plot. Mahler’s score also includes the anthem “Marching into Hell,” which is almost straight out of Billy Elliot and is the very first song in the show. His lyrics are incredibly rhyme-oriented, to a degree that made me grin and roll my eyes in equal measure, sometimes both at once. It’s cute when it’s appropriate.
Rachel Rockwell’s direction brings out fine acting and all sorts of fun staging devices, including rockets that vanish in a puff of smoke and an elaborate sound design by Robert E. Gilmartin. The major drawback is that October Sky was a movie, filmed in actual forests and actual mines, and Marriott’s arena stage does not favor realistic sets. There are some scenes where the surroundings are wisely left to the imagination, but others in which the movement of furniture only onstage for a few minutes has to be elaborately choreographed. Nonetheless, the staging generally enhances the story, to a point where the adaptation is worth doing, and attending. I don’t find the music stand-out on its own, but it’s good for atmosphere, and October Sky is a fun evening celebrating what the human mind can accomplish, even in adverse conditions. Too many people have a psychological block regarding math and science. This show makes their beauty accessible to everyone.
This show has been Jeff recommended.
Playing at The Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, Illinois. Tickets are $50-55; to order, call 847-634-0200 or visit MarriottTheatre.com. Performances are Wednesdays at 1:00 pm and 8:00 pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 4:30 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 1:00 pm and 5:00 pm with select Thursday at 1:00 pm shows through October 11. Running time is two and a half hours with one intermission.