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.
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!