nytheatre.com review by Stephen Kaliski
October 9, 2010
Trails, receiving its East Coast premiere at this year's New York Musical Theatre Festival, features one of the most intriguing premises of any recent musical: two childhood friends cope with "the one who got away" by hiking the complete Appalachian Trail. And yet for the gargantuan distance that these characters cover, the play itself, an overlong and undeservedly melodramatic tale of longing, sadly goes nowhere.
Jeff Thomson and Jordan Mann, the highly regarded young musicians behind the score, are clearly talented prospects. Their consistently strong songwriting occasionally connects with one of the six scattershot actors to ignite a moment of heartfelt feeling.
Christy Hall's ample book and Jen Bender's unimaginative direction are the elements that need the most attention during this project's continued development. The story clumsily shifts from an abrasively goofy first act to a lifelessly dour second act, unable to strike a happy medium. We subsequently receive a two-hour-and-45-minute American odyssey with a serious identity crisis.
Through intermittent flashbacks, Hall gives us the story of Seth (Matt Lutz), Amy (Vanessa Ray), and Mike (Nick Dalton), three youngsters who create a childhood gang of boundless dreams and enduring friendship. As they grow older, the boys each discover strangely un-Platonic feelings for the girl, who reciprocates with a love she wishes she could share but ultimately cannot.
The present day of the story picks up well into Seth and Mike's adulthood, when Amy, for reasons to be named later, has eluded them both. Seth now does freelance work, and Mike is a lawyer, "the good kind." In an attempt to exorcise demons and rekindle the friendship of old, Mike suggests hiking the Appalachian Trail, a grueling journey that lasts the rest of the play.
The great directing challenge, especially on a NYMF budget, is how to communicate linear motion in a cramped black box theatre. It's an unenviable task for Bender, yet she finds no elegant solution other than asking Lutz and Dalton to walk back and forth on stage, occasionally sip their Nalgenes, and often smell their armpits. Other than an Indiana Jones-esque progress map on Michael P. Kramer's scenic backdrop, we have no sense that these characters are moving anywhere.
The writing further holds them down. Hall remains on the surface of these relationships yet simultaneously demands that we feel deeply connected to their personal history. When they ask each other questions like "So what have you been up to?" and "I was going to ask about your freelance work" well into their journey, it's clear to us that the script takes this history for granted.
The atmospheric detail of the hike itself also prevents us from making a serious investment. The trail is full of stock characters—the hillbilly park rangers, the grizzled old man, the hippie old woman—who would seem more at home in the Country Bear Jamboree. A last second "Will Seth and Mike run out of food?" detour conveniently dissipates before it's ever resolved, as if these same city boys who somehow forgot to pack bug spray now transcend the necessity of eating.
The performances are all over the map. Lutz fares best amongst the leads, and Hollis Scarborough does lovely work as Faith, a college girl who crosses the boys' path on the trail. Ray unleashes her Broadway pipes in song but mumbles through her dialogue, and Dalton seems stuck in a high gear of utmost earnestness. David Atkinson and Kate Kearney-Patch contribute to the tonal smorgasbord with the broadest of broadly comedic supporting work.
Although the growing pains would be significant, the project does have signs of future life. The presence of myth looms large over Trails. The characters are fascinated by astronomy and the stories of Orion, Orpheus, and Eurydice, a ploy to give their story its own brand of mythos. This wistful stargazing, a happy medium between silliness and soap opera sadness, captures the right mood for the piece.
Thomson and Mann are a team to watch for. I wish their fairly traditional arrangements would have explored a more distinctly Appalachian sound, but their songs are nonetheless rewards for sitting through the weighty book. Their music balances gravitas with welcome humor, particularly in "The Tango Mosquito," a clever homage to Chicago's "Cell Block Tango." Whether or not these two return with Trails, they'll be back with a vengeance before we know it.