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Affectionate story propels Marriott's crowd-pleasing 'October Sky' musical

"October Sky," the quaint, coming-of-age musical about high school rocket scientists desperate to "slip the surly bonds" of their West Virginia coal town, is about ready for lift off judging from Wednesday's world premiere at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire.

That "October Sky" is a crowd-pleaser was evident from the near-capacity crowd's enthusiastic response. Adapted from Universal Pictures' 1999 film and NASA engineer Homer H. Hickam Jr.'s autobiographical "Rocket Boys," and produced in association with Universal's live theater division, it tells the familiar tale of a son desperate for his father's approval, yet unwilling to sacrifice his dreams to conform to his father's expectations.

Without question, this show pushes emotional buttons, but does it so well, so earnestly you don't really mind.

The credit rests with the affectionate, gently humorous book by Marriot lead artistic director Aaron Thielen and a twangy, appealing score by composer/lyricist Michael Mahler combining early rock n' roll, bluegrass and Appalachian folk. The accomplished duo, who collaborated in 2012 on Marriott's award-winning original musical "Hero," know what they're doing. The easy transitions between scenes and songs, the tunes that propel the plot and illuminate the characters, are among the delights of this show, which unfolds in a struggling mining town in 1957 at the beginning of the U.S.- Soviet space race.

There are others, including winning performances from Nate Lewellyn as a seemingly unremarkable teenager who reaches for the stars in order to escape his destiny underground, along with like-minded fellow social outcasts played by Ben Barker, Patrick Rooney and Alex Weisman.

But while there is much to admire about "October Sky," Thielen and Mahler need to tweak the operating system and lighten the payload before this feel-good show's second launch.

The story centers on Homer (Lewellyn, whose lovely upper register complements his unaffected charm), a so-so student on the social fringe of his small-town high school whose father John -- a strict, company man played by David Hess -- expects his son to follow him into the coal mines. Homer has other ideas.
Inspired by the Sputnik, he decides to build a rocket and enlists help from pals O'Dell (Barker), whose bum leg keeps him "behind the scenes;" Roy Lee (Rooney), whose stepfather smacks him around; and the much-bullied smartest boy in school, Quentin, played to perfection with understated humor and gawky charm by Weisman.

Urging them on is Homer's practical, perceptive mother Elsie (Susan Moniz), who recognizes her son could change his destiny, and Miss Riley, a "secret poet" turned science teacher, compassionately played by Johanna McKenzie Miller, whose performance pays homage to those educators who really do transform lives. It's Miss Riley who challenges Homer, encouraging him to enter a science fair where first place could mean a college scholarship and a life above ground.

Well-acted and well-sung (under music director Ryan T. Nelson), the production is inherently authentic thanks to director Rachel Rockwell, who earlier this year helmed Drury Lane Theatre's Joseph Jefferson Award-nominated "Billy Elliot" (to which "October Sky" owes more than a passing nod). Rockwell keeps in check the sentimentality that creeps into the second act, but the show has a couple of issues worth addressing.

While the ending is never in doubt, the show needs more tension, more suspense -- particularly in the second act when it seems a competitor appears to upend the boys' efforts. Additionally, Thielen and Mahler haven't yet found a way to balance the main narrative of the boys' efforts to build their rocket with the secondary plot concerning the failing mine. Lastly, while the show is loaded with good tunes -- like the rollicking "If We Get It Right" or the wistful "Look to the Stars" -- not all of them are necessary. Case in point: "Moonshine," which finds the boys seeking a fuel additive from miners turned distillers who share with the youngsters how shine gets them through the day. The number is hugely entertaining and it's a prime showcase for James Earl Jones II. But it's an unnecessary detour from a narrative that could use a bit of tightening.

That said, "October Sky" contains some emotionally rich musical moments, like the impassioned duet "I Don't Know Him" between parents at odds over their son and "Something That's Divine," a moving revelation of the soul of a teacher. Then there are those moments without words, without music, where the characters' rapt expressions tell us everything we need to know about the thrill that comes when we reach beyond the ordinary, to the stars.