Marriott Theatre's ‘October Sky’ Flies High
Boys love their rockets. We find this out rather quickly in Marriott Theatre’s world premiere of October Sky, a new musical based on the 1999 film featuring Jake Gyllenhaal and Chris Cooper. Written by Aaron Thielen with the music and lyric by Michael Mahler, the play opens with a heavy duty musical number “Marching into Hell” where a handful of coal miners head deep into the dangerous coal mines.
Taking place in 1957 Coalwood, West Virginia, most boys are destined to become coal miners. Opportunity to take another career path are far and few between. The city depends on the mine, which has become even more dangerous with newer technology that powders the coal, leaving a hazardous dust to be inhaled and cause lung disease rather than the older days where the mineral was gather by using picks. Occasional gas explosions also take place as we find out in the first scene as news of such a tragedy leaves thirty dead in a nearby mine.
Homer’s father, John Hickam, heads a large mining crew and fully expects his son to follow suit. However, when the Soviet Union launches Sputnik for all the town to see in the October Sky, Homer and his friends are driven to make a rocket of their own. Naturally, Homer’s father sees this as a distraction, while the town supports the boys as their rockets slowly become more and more advanced, despite their moments of failure. With the help of Miss Riley, Homer’s teacher who recognizes their interest in such a science as a way to avoid the destined mining life, the boys eventually take their work to a series of science fairs. While Homer’s mother is supportive and pleased with Homer’s ingenuity, his father still struggles with the idea.
October Sky is not just a story about boys making rockets, it is also a story about support from friends, changing hearts and perseverance. It is a feel good story that encourages one to follow their dreams.
Superbly cast, I really enjoyed Nate Lewellyn in the role of Homer Hickham. He is a bit reminiscent of a young and boyish Tom Hanks. Lewellyn displays his solid vocal range in many challenging numbers, perhaps most notably in Act II’s “Stars Shine Down”. Ben Barker, Patrick Rooney and Alex Weisman perfectly round out the quartet of rocket builders while Susan Moniz really shines as Homer’s wise and loving mother, Elsie Hickam. One of my favorite performances is that of David Hess as John Hickam. I really find it a pleasure to observe Hess’ vocal prowess and his ability to execute such a wide variety of emotions.
The songs are lyrically clever – and often funny, while the set has a few fun surprises such as the effect used as the miners take an elevator down into the mine. Theresa Ham does a fantastic job as costume designer, really pulling off the 1950s era and Dance Captain Jameson Cooper utilizes some very unique and original ideas in the big dance numbers. The show is finally brought together tightly with a strong ensemble and a wonderful band that knows how to get their southern twang on when needed.
One of the show’s big crowd pleasers was the knee-slappin’ number “Moonshine”, a lively number that takes place in the backwoods and has the actors playing instruments as “Bathtub Amos & The Drunk as a Skink Jug Band”.
October Sky runs around two-and-a-half hours long but is quite enjoyable throughout thanks to a fetching story, fun effects and enjoyable musical numbers.