The Great Unknown
nytheatre.com review by Maura Kelley
October 6, 2010
The Great Unknown, with book by William Hauptman and music and lyrics by Jim Wann, proves to be a solidly written piece of musical theatre. The songs are memorable; the story simply told with actors creating the set mostly by use of their expressive bodies. The play is based on a true historical drama of the Powell expedition in 1869. Major John Powell gathered a team of men to travel down the Green and Colorado Rivers through the unknown territory of the Grand Canyon with the hopes of reaching California. This dangerous expedition had never been attempted before.
The actors playing the men traveling down the treacherous river with Powell—Edmund Bagnell as Oramel Howland, Steven Beckingham as Bill Dunn, Thomas Wesley Stewart as Missouri Rhodes, and Bobby Day as Somers, a former slave—are all excellent and energetic in their characterizations. Songs like "The Great Unknown" and "Echoes," sung expertly, help paint the picture of the expedition. I was impressed with the innovative staging and direction by Don Stephenson and choreographer Liza Gennaro. One inventive element excites when the river waters, symbolically played by the female ensemble members, grab onto the men and drag them off their rafts. Designer Christopher E. Edwards's silhouetting light effects help create interesting visuals. The singing overall is strong and the a cappella opening number electrified. Kudos to music director Wayne Barker. Structurally the play allows every character in the play to shine a little through a song or a feature.
The men refer to this rigorous journey as "Hell" after losing most of their provisions, but it is also filled with internal tension due to effects of the recent Civil War and the love triangle between Emma, Walter, and Major Powell. Major Powell, played by Tom Hewitt, and his younger brother Walter (Dan Amboyer) are both in love with the same woman, Emma (Kristin Maloney). What I did find strange was the age difference between the Major and Walter. They looked more like father and son; however, historically, I'm unsure how wide the age gap really was.
Amboyer, as the tortured Walter, recovering from being prisoner at Andersonville Prison, crafts a multi-layered interpretation. One particularly intriguing moment in the play which has relevance today is when Missouri Rhodes asks Walter for forgiveness after confessing that he was a former Rebel Yankee killer because he "didn't know no better."
Maloney as Emma gives an outstanding performance, but more exceptional than her strong, clear voice is her acting. Special mention also goes to Bobby Daye playing Somers, the role of a former slave and sometimes narrator of the play. His rendition of "Memory Hill," one of the final numbers, is show-stopping.
The talented ensemble works hard to tell their story and experience it for us, but something is off dynamically between the men and their leader. There is no denying Hewitt's talent, especially his strong rich voice, but there was a disconnection on Hewitt's part. At times it seems almost as if he was acting in a completely different melodramatic play. The characters describe Major Powell as "sour" or "very deep" but a character that is constantly brooding and so distracted as to not look at people he speaks to, with no redeeming qualities, doesn't give the audience much to root for. I would think a leader, a former Civil War soldier like Major Powell, would need an inspiring quality to get men to follow him into "The Great Unknown."
Though I would like to see more of a connective bond between the captain and his men on this incredible journey, I have to say all in all, I enjoyed The Great Unknown, its songs, and its talented cast.