Friday, November 18, 2016

Fall Harvest of Plays: October Sky

Generational challenges are among the most popular themes for conflict and drama in literature, as they are in everyday life. Such is the case in October Sky, the Old Globe premiere which opened the theater's 2016-17 season in October. The father-son relationship in the play is based on the the one in the Homer Hickam, Jr. book, Rocket Boys, published in 1998, and in the movie, October Sky, produced a year later. Set in coal mining country, the musical has even greater relevance today, with the carbon footprint of coal production credited as a major contributor to climate change. It does not bode well for the industry, which includes small towns and thousands of workers and their families who rely on coal for their livelihood.

Russia's launch of the spaceship, Sputnik, in 1957, gave birth to a new space age competition between the U.S. and Russia, and led many young people, including Homer Hickam, to become fascinated with rockets. When Homer rounds up a couple of friends to help him build and set off rockets in his Coalwood, West Virginia neighborhood, a small fire erupts on a nearby fence. The boys extinguish it, but Dad forbids Homer from pursuing more of this tomfoolery, and asks why he can't be more like his older brother who plays football and wins a scholarship to a state college. The truth is that Homer is in line to work in the mines, like his dad and granddad, not to set off rockets. But his talents and instincts, nurtured by a devoted teacher, don't fit the mold.

With help from a miner in the metal shop, and an instructional booklet from his teacher, Homer refines his technique and continues to light up the night sky with fiery rocket blazes that shoot for the stars. But as fortune would have it, Dad is injured at work and Homer is forced to go to the mines and support the family. Like "Billy Elliott," another musical about a boy from a British mining town, the ongoing struggle between father and son plays out against the time-honored tradition of mining. In Coalwood, young Homer yearns to be a part of the new world of space age exploration, while young Billy, in County Durham, aspires to a career in dance. In both plays, the fathers stand between the boys and their dreams.

A powerful song performed by an able chorus of male voices, "To the Mines" roots October Sky in a solid foundation of the blue collar culture. At the end of the number, the miners in uniform grasp their lunch boxes and step into a caged elevator to disappear below stage. Clinks and clanks from the descent foreshadow hard labor which puts the men at risk of injury, disease and death. A bystander until now, Homer's mother steps forward to support her son and confront Dad, who must face his own faults and recognize his son for who he is. Homer leaves the mines, with a burst of enthusiasm and optimism that sparks a stirring vocal performance in "Look to the Stars."

The striking set design of October Sky reflects the mining workplace, with elaborate chains, wheels and machinery built on facades above and beyond stage borders. The effect on the audience is one of immersion in the mining workplace. Rocket launches on stage must certainly require a degree of technical expertise to pull them off, especially as they grow larger with each of Homer's efforts, fascinating to watch. If Old Globe plays like Bright Star and A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder are any indication of the future, October Sky has its own shot at the stars. The first two shows left San Diego to enjoy Broadway runs in recent years, with A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder winning the 2014 Tony for Best Musical. So it's onward and upward, October Sky!

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Fall Harvest of Plays: Oklahoma

The San Diego theater scene is a cornucopia of choices. In addition to traveling Broadway shows, a collection of community stages provides endless choices of excellent theater and talent. I make it a habit to scan the arts calendar and discounted Goldstar plays until something pops up that I absolutely have to see.

In late August, the New Village Arts Theater in Carlsbad produced the American musical classic, Oklahoma, to rave reviews, so I couldn't resist. The production featured a cast of seasoned professionals who were delightful in their roles, but the surprise performance came from a "promising baritone" named Jack French who won us over the moment he belted out the opening number, Oh What A Beautiful Mornin' in Aunt Eller's front yard. The impressive opera roles in his bio attested to his amazing talent, which filled the intimate theater with a commanding rendition of the song. I was mesmerized. The voice was undeniable in its strength and clarity, the winsome strut seductive, and the handsome actor ripe with confidence.

You know the story. The guy pursues the girl, who resists until she wakes up and realizes he's the one she wants, and all varieties of characters and complications interfere until it ends happily ever after. It premiered on Broadway in 1943 with a cast of unknowns and a world in which Nazism was eventually defeated and individualism and the human spirit won. Set in the early days of Oklahoma settlements, the play put a spotlight on the strong work ethic and can do character of America as the backdrop of the story. From now on, when I think of Oklahoma, I will only see Jack French singing the opening number on that stage. A recent graduate of Point Loma University in San Diego, he's on his way to a master's program in opera performance, so there's no question he'll continue to dazzle San Diego audiences, but even more likely, audiences far beyond our shores.