One of the benefits of seeing a lot of live theater is recognizing familiar faces on stage and familiar names in the Playbills. But there's also great joy in the unfamiliar: new names and faces that surprise and delight.
Both joys are to be found in See Rock City & Other Destinations, a delightful new Off Broadway musical currently being presented by the Transport Group at The Duke on 42nd Street. The theater, which I was new to, is a flexible black-box space, of which director Jack Cummings III takes full advantage.
Cummings' deft touches include not only an immersive theatrical experience (not unlike his production of The Boys in the Band, which literally took place in a Chelsea apartment building), but also the ingenious use of various forms of lighting, from fluorescent to klieg.
See Rock City is essentially a musical travelogue, a mosaic of songs and scenes that take place at various tourist destinations across the U.S., including Niagara Falls, The Alamo, and the eponymous Rock City. Among the relatively new names on talented display at the Duke are composer Brad Alexander (Click Clack Moo, We the People: America Rocks!) and lyricist/librettist Adam Mathias (The Passion of George W. Bush).
Alexander's sonorous score not only effectively sets the time and place, but also powerfully evokes the characters' emotional states, two hallmarks of successful theater music. Mathias' peripatetic scenarios share a common element: moments of realization for the characters involved, perhaps to make the connection between geographic and internal exploration. What makes the show so affecting is how Mathias and Alexander take situations that are potentially fraught with sentimentality and create varying states of tender verisimilitude. The freshness of the dialog and the palpable humanity of the characters somehow override the potential for cliche.
As for familiar faces, the cast of See Rock City features some of the most appealing and talented actors the theater has to offer, each playing two separate characters. In one segment, the show's three female cast members -- Donna Lynn Champlin (Sweeney Todd), Sally Wilfert (Make Me a Song), and Mamie Parris (Ragtime) -- play sisters who gather on an Alaskan cruise to sprinkle their father's ashes along the glaciers. From such a potentially twee setup comes one of the most humorous and engaging segments in the show, thanks in no small part to these three formidable performers.
The men are certainly no less strong. In perhaps the show's most effective sequence, Stanley Bahorek (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) and Bryce Ryness (Hair) portray two prep school boys who play hooky and take a trip out to Coney Island. This lively scene is full of both testosterone-fueled avoidance and exploratory approach, showcasing Bahorek's vulnerability and Ryness's bravado to full effect. Somewhat underutilized are Jonathan Hammond (The Boys in the Band) and Ryan Hilliard. But, hey, it would be hard to write a musical in which six performers received equal treatment and opportunity.
See Rock City plays at the Duke through August 8th. I'm hoping that the show has some kind of afterlife, if only in the form of a cast recording. It's a strong show that deserves to been seen and savored, and promises great things from the talented cast and creative crew.
[UPDATE: See Rock City & Other Destinations has now been extended until August 14th. So you have 8 more chances to catch this charming and heartfelt musical during its current run.]