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Let's Rocket!: 'October Sky' Musical Mines Familiar Territory Rather Tunefully

In a close-knit coal mining community, where young men follow in their fathers' footsteps for generations, a boy harbors interests and talents well-beyond the norm in a warmhearted musical based on a somewhat cultish but beloved movie from around the turn of the century.

With the mine in decline and union battles brewing, the townsfolk are initially quite dismissive and derisive about the boy's actions and aspirations--most vehemently his proud but closed-minded father, himself a mining lifer.

But with support from an empathetic teacher, who once held divergent ambitions of her own, the enterprising youth is encouraged to follow his heart and pursue his passions.

No, I am not describing Billy Elliot.

Or I kinda am, but also the current world premiere musical October Sky, whose opening night I attended on Wednesday at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire.

Although the show's creators--book writer (and Marriott Lead Artistic Director) Aaron Thielen, composer/lyricist Michael Mahler and director Rachel Rockwell--are to be commended for creating an engaging and entertaining new musical, they clearly must be aware that similar plotlines have already been musically mined.

In addition to Billy Elliot--the 2000-movie turned 2005-musical that the 1999-movie turned 2015-musical seems to reference in a lyric citing "every boy who couldn't learn to dance"--The Full Monty, Kinky Boots and The Last Ship are just a few fairly recent stage musicals about people going against the grain in gritty industrial towns, usually in trying to get out of them.

Though Mahler's strong batch of tunes stand on their own and give October Sky artistic validity because of it, the show begins with a song of miner solidarity--"Marching Into Hell"--that clearly reminds of Billy Elliot's opening "The Stars Look Down" (and also Les Misérables' "Work Song").

As worthwhile entertainment, especially laudable for Marriott Theatre's willingness to create something new and inherently risky, the genial October Sky isn't greatly undermined by similarities to Billy Elliot or other shows, even if it isn't quite as good as Billy or the cream of the Broadway classics long enjoyed by the country's largest subscription base.

But with Broadway ambitions innately iffy given subject matter that skews young, male and rural, it seems interesting that from a vast list of Universal Pictures movies to potentially develop into a musical--as presented by Christopher Herzberger, a Chicagoland actor turned Exectuive of Live Theatricals at Universal--artistic director Thielen would, even as an avowed fan of the film, gravitate to a project certain to invite inevitable comparisons.

I've never seen the movie, nor even recall having heard of it, and was unfamiliar with Rocket Boys, Hiram H. Hickam, Jr.'s 1998 memoir on which it was based.

In creating the movie, Universal opted for the anagram October Sky to widen appeal, feeling that women over 30 would be resistant to the book's title.

But according to Wikipedia, Rocket Boys "is one of the most often picked community/library reads in the United States," so perhaps the original title would better sell this show to a young, male, non-traditional theater-going audience that might well enjoy it, perhaps via many subsequent regional productions if not ever on the Great White Way.

Because for all the stellar aspects of the new musical, it is a rather straightforward tale of geeky high school dreamers told with a bit too much "golly-gee" earnestness for me to perceive it doing boffo business on Broadway, where an ironic edge or comedic causticness seems largely requisite of late (along with abundant tourist appeal).

Aside from ready comparisons or NYC potential, the lack of any edginess--even in Mahler's otherwise strong score and often witty lyrics--stands as one aspect of October Sky that renders it, at this point, more an excellent effort than a truly superlative musical.

Based on Hickam's true life account, October Sky centers around teenaged Homer (well-played and sung by Nate Lewellyn in originating the musical role) and three of his friends--Roy Lee (Patrick Rooney), O'Dell (Ben Barker) and Quentin (Alex Weisman)--as they attempt to build a small-but-launchable rocket in the wake of the Soviets sending Sputnik into space in 1957.

Homer's father, named John here for clarity (rather than the actual Homer Sr.) and played by David Hess, is the manager of the mine in Coalwood, West Virginia. Even before Homer becomes a space case, John dotes far more on older son Jim (Liam Quealy), who is the town's football star.

Much more in tune with Homer, who voices his aspirations through one of Mahler's best songs--"Look to the Stars"--are the two women in his life, his mom Elsie and a teacher named Miss Riley, warmly and wonderfully embodied by local stage stalwarts, Susan Moniz and Johanna McKenzie Miller, respectively.

Two Act I songs Mahler has penned for Elsie, "Solid Ground" and "The Man I Met" illustrate the breadth of his skills--and Moniz' vocal gifts--while showing October Sky to already be a musical with a rather solid foundation.

Even if you haven't read the book, seen the movie or know Hickam's basic biography in becoming an aerospace engineer, it's fairly easy to guess where the narrative is going to go. So it's much to the credit of Mahler, Thielen, Rockwell, the cast and a whole bunch of quality songs that October Sky earned a standing ovation on opening night.

If not a masterpiece, it is definitely a likable show and much like 2012's Hero, likewise an original creation by Thielen and Mahler, I greatly appreciated seeing it among Marriott's more tried-and-true material. In fact, I acutely enjoyed October Sky more than some supposed classics and many higher profile pre-Broadway musicals that have had downtown Chicago tryouts.

So especially for those who, like me, get a particular kick out of seeing World Premieres, I recommend you get to the in-the-round Marriott Theatre for October Sky before October 11 comes around.

In addition to those already noted, first-rate songs include "Never Getting Out Alive," "If We Get It Right," first act closer "Hey Did You Hear" and as the most ebullient number of a musical largely devoid of dancing, "Moonshine," rendered as an Appalachian jig with fine singing by James Earl Jones II.

In press for October Sky, both Mahler and Thielen have noted that part of the project's appeal is the timeframe and setting, which allows early rock 'n roll and Appalachian folk sounds to infuse the score.

And while Mahler's compositions are stylistically diverse, some of the show's missing "edge" could be sharpened by more obvious musical allusions to Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly and other rock 'n roll pioneers who, not so unlike Homer and friends, challenged the status quo and parental tolerance in the late 1950s.

Though I realize the narrative must largely hue to the movie and Hickam's accounts, it feels like the storyline could benefit from some shrewd subplots to accompany the skyward aims of Homer & pals, the backing of his beloved teacher and the ongoing miner quarrels. (It was fun to see longtime favorite Terry Hamilton as the union head, and I should also note Derek Hasenstab as a mine machinist who aids Homer in building rockets.)

In a show predominantly about teenagers, there is a noticeable dearth of romantic interaction (or young women with much prominence) and while I don't suggest such themes should be shoehorned in cheaply, auxiliary commentary on racism, gay rights, women's rights, oppression, depression, parenting and other serious and sensitive matters is part of what made Billy Elliot, Hairspray, Kinky Boots, Legally Blonde and other screen-to-stage adaptations (and musicals not based on movies like Wicked and Spring Awakening) work so well and remain so relevant.

Yes, Homer and his friends speak and sing about being misfits and how academic achievement is largely overshadowed by athletic accomplishments in high schools, communities and even families.

So it's not that October Sky doesn't share any of the societal sensibilities and outcast pride of the aforementioned shows.

But as good as it is, the admirable new musical could be that much better if it felt a bit more intense and incisive in reaching for the sky.

Even while justifying its own existence in the miners-and-dreamers milieu, October Sky includes nothing close to the ingenuity of Billy Elliot's "Solidarity," a number that brilliantly intertwines striking miners and children in a dance class.

As such, Marriott's newest self-developed musical is--again, like Hero--an impressive yet relatively straightforward success. And there's nothing wrong, and much right, with that.

Unless it truly wants to shoot for the stars.