Most of the Marriott Theatre subscribers are used to seeing the old “standbys" on this “arena stage”, year after year, after year. Sometimes they do get an added attraction and once in a “Blue Moon”, a FIRST!. Several years ago, subscribers, and other audience members were treated to a brand new musical “Hero” on this stage. Written by Aaron Thielen with music and lyrics by Michael Mahler, “Hero” was something special that made the trip from Lincolnshire to Broadway. Could lightning strike twice? We may soon find out as the World Premiere of a new Musical, “October Sky” written by the same team has taken the stage for its initial run. Based on the movie of the same name and inspired by the book “Rocket Boys” written by Home H. Hickam, Jr., this new musical takes us back in time. It is 1957. Sputnik (making the Russians first in the race for space) has just lit up the sky, the” October Sky” over the small mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia. The world is about to change for the poor mining community of Coalwood.
Homer Hickam (Nate Lewellyn shines in his building of this character) a high schooler, who is always in the shadow of his older brother Jim (Liam Quealy), a football hero, decides that rather than follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, that he will create his own rockets and bring the United States to battle with Russia. He and three of his schoolmates, the brighter, nerdy types(played to perfection by Ben Barker, Patrick Rooney and the hysterical Alex Weisman) begin to light up the skies with their home-made rockets, constantly searching for new improvements and for once being the “IT guys” that the girls will swoon over. One of their teachers, Miss Riley (Johanna McKenzie Miller, who has made the transition from ingénue to character role with great ease) convinces them that the Science Fair may be the way out of working the mines and getting a further education.
Despite all the set-backs that life can throw at these young men, their desire and the hopes and dreams they bring to a town that is controlled by the mine owners, brings the town together. This in spite of mine accidents, strikes and a deep depression in the economy. This is a story of truth and hope and dreams becoming reality despite the roadblocks that life presents, one day at a time. Yet, as we learn, the remedies for these problems all come in just the same way, one day at a time. The music is a mixture of Country/Western, Blues and even a bit of “Bluegrass”. While, for the most part, there are no hummable or singable songs in this show, the music is designed to fit and propel the story that is being told. When something new is being performed, the production people must find a director who can understand the heart and soul of the writers. Marriott has done just that by having Award winning Rachel Rockwell take the lead and Musical Director Ryan T. Nelson. Add Patti Garwood as the conductor (and keyboard player) and her eight musicians and you find that Mahler’s music takes on a life of its own.
The cast of players is a fine mix of character actors, many of them Chicago favorites mixed with some of the new, younger talent that seems to find their home in our theater scene: David Hess plays Homer’s dad, the foreman of the mine and the always sensational Susan Moniz as his strong-willed mother. Chicago favorite Terry Hamilton handles the role of Ken Dubonnet, the Union organizer, and James Earl Jones II, as always turns in a sharp performance ( you will love his “Moonshine” bluegrass number with his “band”). The other ensemble members include: Derek Hasenstab, Neil Friedman, Jameson Cooper, David Lively, J. Michael Finley, Jesse Grider, Eliza Palasz, Betsy Stewart, Caleb Baze, Elizabeth Telford, Jonny Stein, Patrick Lane, Joan Hess and Dara Cameron. These performers handle many roles and have lots of costume changes in this fast paced show.
Thomas M. Ryan has designed a workable set considering that this is in-the-round. There are some flaws doing this show in this manner, but since it was Marriott who started this, it is only fitting that they do the final product. The set changes and flow would be easier on a normal stage, for sure. The lighting (Jesse Klug), sound (Robert E. Gilmartin), costumes (Theresa Ham), wigs (Richard Jarvie) and in particular the props (Mealah Heidenreich) all make this show special. You will see rockets fired, but have no fear, they are under control at all times. The start of the show gives you the true feeling that one would have watching the miner , who risk their lives daily (“Marching Into Hell” and from that point forward, until you hear the cast do “Look To The Stars” reprise, you will have two hours and twenty minutes of magic on stage. This being brand new, I would be anxious to hear what you feel.