Stage musical of 'October Sky' takes flight at Marriott Theatre
Can "October Sky" — the beloved 1999 movie about four boys escaping their coal mining destiny by learning to build rockets — also fly as a musical?
Aaron Thielen (Greendale High School, '90) — artistic director of the Marriott Theatre, one hour south of Milwaukee — clearly thinks so. Teaming up with Michael Mahler (music and lyrics), Thielen (book) and the Marriott launched the world premiere of their musical adaptation of "October Sky" on Wednesday night, under Rachel Rockwell's direction.
Reaching the stars is the farthest thing from young Homer Hickam's mind as we begin, watching him watch the miners in his hometown of Coalwood, W. Va., as they descend underground in the fall of 1957 — marching, as the musical's opening number tells us, into hell.
John Hickam — Homer's father and mine superintendent — drives the point home, telling the men about a lethal explosion in a nearby mine.
No wonder Homer and his chums immediately follow the opening call of "Marching into Hell" with the despairing response of "Never Getting Out Alive."
The Soviet launch of Sputnik changes all that, inspiring Homer with dreams that he too might fly. Singing the first of Homer's two stirring solos, Nate Lewellyn (Marquette University High School, '06) undergoes a similar change, shifting upward vocally on the word "star" as he looks to the heavens and imagines — for the first time — that he might fly.
As in the movie, Homer won't and can't achieve liftoff by himself. The Coalwood community surrounds and supports him — a point that's continually reinforced by the Marriott's in-the-round format.
Most important, there's Homer's three fellow rocket boys (Ben Barker, Patrick Rooney and an especially fine Alex Weisman, giving the intense and dorky Quentin both texture and depth). They're continually aided by the mine workers, with Derek Hasenstab standing out as Polish émigré and mine machinist Ike Bykovski.
Mahler and Thielen have also added layers to the supportive roles played by the movie's two most important women: Miss Riley the science teacher (an alternately puckish and poignant Johanna McKenzie Miller) and Elsie, Homer's mother (an alternately tart and tender Susan Monitz).
Where the flight plan of "October Sky" needs the most work if it's to land in New York — and with the blessing and support of Universal Studios, that's the goal — is in its portrait of Homer's father (David Hess) and, by extension, the relationship between him and Homer.
John Hickam may be married to his job and have a hard time grasping what his dreamy son is all about. But Homer nevertheless looks up to him for a reason: John is smart, principled and courageous about his convictions. As in the movie, so too with this musical: We need to believe Elsie when she tells her husband that for all their differences, he and Homer are alike.
But the John Hickam we see here comes across as petulant, blustery and overly concerned about his image. Efforts to flesh out both him and his marriage are among the weakest in the show; they suggest that Mahler and Thielen don't have sufficient faith in this character to let the actor playing him convey all that roils within, while still remaining his stubbornly taciturn self.
Thielen's book occasionally manifests a similar problem, resorting to sententious and stilted dialogue to drive home how characters feel, rather than just letting them be. And act.
The melodrama in "October Sky" is already baked into its dramatic arc. If it's going to travel as far as it could, Mahler and Thielen must fully trust this trajectory, without adding any booster rockets.