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From the Mines to the Moon

A feel-good story of literal uplift, the new musical October Sky, like the 1999 film, is an anagram of Rocket Boys, the true-life confessional of Homer H. Hickam, Jr. Pushing many buttons, this 150-minute world premiere by Chicagoans Aaron Thielen (book) and actor/composer Michael Mahler (music and lyrics) spins an all-American success story a la Horatio Alger and Billy Elliott. It celebrates the pluck and luck of four “rocket boys”–high school geeks despised by the jocks and ignored by the girls–who make good (as in go to college). In the process they save themselves from toiling in the mines of Coalwood, West Virginia, a dump that’s determined to die. Instead they literally aim for the stars (as in develop an amateur rocket to compete in a national science fair in Indianapolis).

Offering much to many (and, in the process, too little of each), Marriott Theatre’s creation functions as a coming-of-age story, domestic drama, Eisenhower Era time capsule, origins tale for the space race, and one boy’s almost patriotic declaration of independence. It’s 1957 and science nerd Homer Hickam Jr. (Nate Lewellyn), mired in Big Creek High School, is eager to escape. His tough-loving dad John (David Hess), a controlling mine manager, suffers from silicosis and the inability to sympathize with his son’s wish not to dig coal for the rest of a shortened life.

More supportive but equally neglected, Homer’s mom Elsie (Susan Moniz) endures an unhappy marriage, her consolation that her son’s future will be better (“Just don’t blow yourself up!”). But that prospect actually threatens John who, averse to the usual parental hopes for their kids, resents his son for wanting to flee a dead end in the hill country. (In effect John unpleasantly argues, “If coal mining is good enough for me, Homer can hack it.”) His life gets appropriately harder: John gets injured in a blow-out and must contend with a strike triggered by the lay-offs he engineered.

Homer finds a vocation as well as hobby when he and three dweebish dreamers–brainiac Quentin (Alex Weisman), abused Roy Lee (Patrick Rooney), and doofus O’Dell (Ben Barker)–are entranced by Sputniks I and II. The Russian satellites triggered the quest for the “right stuff” that would take us to the moon and, recently, Pluto. (Unfortunately, it’s also led to “space tourism” for rich people craving expensive thrills and a ton of space junk cluttering every earthly orbit into obstacle courses through debris fields.)

But 58 years ago it encourages four “rocket boys” to come up with home-made missiles, improvised (moonshine-based) energy, and a novel nozzle to deliver the fuel. Further motivating Homer is Polish welder Ike Bykovski (Derek Hasenstab), who helps develop essential parts, including the steel frame for their unguided missiles–and Homer’s spinster science teacher Miss Riley (Johanna McKenzie Miller), a frustrated poet who teaches Homer to aspire–to look up at the October sky rather than settle for the (mine) shaft.

Of course, life (and art) throw in hitches (alias metaphors) along the way: These “eggheads” with their ever-exploding rockets must contend with Coalwood’s damnably diminishing expectations for success along with the laws of physics. Though it’s supposedly non-fiction, the plot doesn’t always feel plausible (especially the late reversals). Homer’s football-star brother (Liam Quealy) is dreadfully undeveloped. Also, it’s never clear how the boys’ rocket fetish breaks any new ground from the vicious V-1 and V-2 missiles of Werner von Braun (in the film but not the musical) or, earlier, Robert Goddard’s pioneer work in the 1920s. Even after the show is over, it isn’t rocket science to wonder how the “Big Creek Missile Agency,” improvised in “Camp Coalwood,” ever got off the ground.

But, of course, it’s a musical, so we work out by suspending disbelief (as in imagining rocket launches we can’t see). Director Rachel Rockwell brings out the best in a familiar tale and theme and a high-flying cast. Lewellyn and his pals (the Hardy Boys meet Mark Twain) bring bumptious vitality to Mahler’s country-western score. Their serviceable songs include euphoric anthems like “We’re Gonna Build a Rocket,” “Look to the Stars,” and the gratuitous rouser “Moonshine.” Warmly intoned by Moniz, “The Man I Met” is the mom’s bittersweet lament for the dad’s fall from place. Miller finds Heartbreak Central in the teacher’s regretful “All My Fault.”

No question, October Sky taps into universal longings–the adolescent urge for freedom, the yearning to escape fate, and a father and son’s search for common ground (somewhere between the stratosphere and the tunnels of Coalwood). But Marriott’s musical is too premediated (as in commercially calculated) to fully earn its happy ending or crowd-pleasing revelations. Plus in 2015 the rocket boys’ fantasies have foundered on deadly ICBMS’ “Star Wars” technology, Richard Branson promotions, two Space Shuttle explosions, and poor priorities (are trips to Mars more important than fixing the one planet we were given to inhabit?). But kids like to blow things up and, yes, such eternal verities deserve grudging respect.