By Charlene Baldridge
The Old Globe presents another musical for our delectation – this one a West Coast premiere titled “October Sky” with book by Brian Hill and Aaron Thielen and music and lyrics by Michael Mahler. It continues in the Old Globe Theatre through Oct. 23.
Opening night was packed to capacity with patrons, staff and “suits,” that will no doubt determine the next move for the piece, which premiered in August 2015 at the Marriott Theatre. It is inspired by the Universal Pictures film and the original book, “Rocket Boys,” by Homer Hickam Jr.
With country- and bluegrass-inflected music, accompanied by a hidden nine-piece orchestra, the production features a company of 24 directed and choreographed by Rachel Rockwell, and exemplifies the Globe’s fine artistic standards, with a stunning set by Kevin Depinet that captures the grime of the coal mine and the unsettled weather of West Virginia with roiling clouds and mist in the background. One can just feel the wind, and the discontent as well.
If you recall the film or the book, Homer Hickam (Kyle Selig), whose father is a coalminer, is inspired by the October 1957 launch of Sputnik, the Russian spaceship that was earth’s first manmade orbiter. Young Homer, who “looks to the stars,” determines to devote himself to rocketry and enlists some high school friends to help. They are the nerd outcast Quentin (Connor Russell), the abused Roy Lee (Patrick Rooney) and the affable klutz, O’Dell (Austyn Myers). Their enterprise is called “The Big Creek Missile Agency.” The boys are supported by the mine’s metal-shop foreman, Ira Bykovski (Joel Blum), who at first manufactures rockets for them, and then teaches them the fundamentals, and Miss Riley (Sandra DeNise) their schoolteacher, who gives them a rocketry guidebook and then urges them to enter the science fair.
John Hickam (powerful baritone Ron Bohmer), Homer’s hardworking father, thinks Homer’s ideas are mere dreams. His plan, since Homer’s older brother is going to college on a football scholarship, is to have Homer follow him into the mines immediately upon high school graduation. Homer knows that if that happens he will be like the legions of other men, “Never Getting Out Alive,” and he vows “We’re Gonna Build a Rocket” as a means of escape.
Elsie Hickam (Kerry O’Malley), Homer’s mother, is also the boys’ supporter as is high school age Dorothy (Eliza Palasz) who never doubts Homer or the success of the “Missile Agency.”
Many circumstances get in the way of Homer’s success, not the least of which is paternal disapproval and disdain, a common theme. But the boys eventually triumph (in real life, Homer winds up with NASA).
So far as the musical goes, the book works even though it is vastly sentimental and over-fraught with dilemmas and death. The three important women share the same vocal and body type, which is more than annoying since the music is so much the same, undistinguished all around. However, they sing Act 2’s opening trio, “The Last Kiss Goodbye,” one of Mahler’s best numbers.
I admit that the twang that accompanies country and bluegrass prevents the genre from endearing itself to me. There are many “anthems” in this show, and country/bluegrass is a poor vehicle for them. However, I loved the boys and their sweet, sustained courage and camaraderie, and enjoyed the big choruses of miners and townspeople.
—Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. Follow her blog at charlenecriticism.blogspot.com or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.