See Rock City & Other Destinations
nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
July 21, 2010
Travel can be a form of self-discovery, as the disparate tourists learn in See Rock City and Other Destinations. This bittersweet, often wondrous new musical by Brad Alexander and Adam Mathias charts 17 different characters across six kitschy yet beautiful American landmarks: Rock City, Roswell, the Alamo, Glacier Bay, Coney Island, and Niagara Falls.
At each destination, the travelers discover not only a new landscape, but their innermost, secret selves. Their stories are familiar, but the way they're told—in brief scenes left unresolved—can be surprising. Characters that would otherwise be cliches become vivid snapshots into the soul, in scenarios that take unexpected twists. On the way to Rock City, a lonely traveler picks up an optimistic waitress...but their would-be romance takes a mystic turn when they hit an animal in the road. At the Alamo, a harried granddaughter wheels her Grampy, left nearly incoherent from a stroke, to the spot where he first saw his wife 60 years ago. He sees a vision of his lost love, while his granddaughter finds her soulmate—or maybe not—in the awkward divorce lawyer sitting on a nearby bench. At Roswell, a nervous young man aims a camera to the night sky, hoping to capture aliens on film, but coming face to face with his loneliness instead. On the deck of a cruise ship gliding through Glacier Bay, three grown sisters bicker about their vacation plans—which include releasing their father's ashes over the ship's railing. At Coney Island, two prep school boys play hooky. At first, they're disappointed with the crumbling amusement park but they gradually fall under its eerie spell. At Niagara Falls, a bride has cold feet...until she meets an otherworldly tour guide who takes her on an unexpected journey.
See Rock City is directed by Jack Cummings III, who helmed the recent acclaimed revival of The Boys in the Band. Cummings staged that play in a real apartment, and he performs an equally thrilling coup de theatre here. Together with set/costume designer Dane Laffrey and lighting designer R. Lee Kennedy, he has transformed the Duke Theatre into a glorious "empty space" that can accommodate the landscape of our imaginations. There is no conventional set, or even conventional seating. Audience members grab beach chairs and sit around the playing area, becoming fellow travelers, as it were, on this journey. A wheeled scaffolding unit (usually used to hang lights and curtains) sits in one corner; the band tucked behind it. The rest is emptiness. The bare bones of the theatre are exposed all the way to the catwalks above.
Cummings uses every inch of the theatre and evokes the most complicated locations with ingenious simplicity. A corner of catwalk becomes the rail of a cruise ship looking out over Glacier Bay. A wheeled garment rack transforms into the Q train to Coney Island. The scaffolding unit becomes the rocky terrain of Rock City, the entrance to the "Spook House" in Coney Island, and later, the cliffs overlooking Niagara Falls.
The lighting design deserves special mention. Kennedy uses non-conventional lighting in startling ways: ceiling fixtures mimic a sunrise, flashlights and mirrors create a spooky funhouse, a string of fluorescent lights dragged by actors along the floor instantly evoke the electric hum of a deserted diner.
A cast of seven portrays all 17 characters with lightning quickness and sharp specificity. Mamie Parris shines as Dodi, the wise waitress, and shows off her operatic soprano as Lily, the sister who keeps peace on the cruise ship. Stanley Bahorek brings a bruised vulnerability to Evan, the young man looking for intelligent life in the universe, and to Rick, the preppy kid who has a crush on his best friend. Jonathan Hammond is sinisterly charming as the eerie Niagara Falls Tour Guide, and humorously self-effacing as the divorce lawyer lunching at the Alamo. Ryan Hilliard makes a dignified Grampy and a scary Coney Island carney. Donna Lynne Champlin finds a warm brashness in Claire, one of the bickering sisters on a cruise, and a Sondheim-esque anxiety in Kate, a Niagara Falls bride who might not be getting married today. Bryce Ryness imbues Jess, the man traveling to Rock City, with aching loneliness, and he finds the questioning heart beating beneath the bullying exterior of Cutter, the cool kid who can't face his best friend's crush. Sally Wilfert brings frustrated compassion to Lauren, Grampy's loyal granddaughter, and a comic zing to Judy in the cruise ship scene.
Adam Mathias's book and lyrics seamlessly interweave six different stories of people in search of themselves along the open road... people who find as many questions as they do answers. Brad Alexander score soars through different styles, evoking Sondheim in the dissonant anxiety of "What Am I Afraid Of?" to the elegant Gilbert and Sullivan-esque "Three Fair Queens" to the rude pop joy of "You Are My...." a raucous celebration of Cutter and Rick's volatile friendship. If anything, you long for more variation, a little more folk, a little more funk...but this in no way diminishes the work's emotional impact. See Rock City is a revelation—a joyous new musical that creates wonder from within.