Chicago Theatre Review
These Rocket Boys Soar
Following the success of their 2012 musical, “Hero,” which also had its world premiere at the Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre, the talented creative team of Aaron Thielen (book) and Michael Mahler (music and lyrics) have once again achieved artistry. Similar to their earlier work, this musical is about another young man striving to follow his dreams while trying to win the love and approval of his father. This new musical is based upon the beloved 1999 film of the same name (that helped launch the career of a young Jake Gyllenhaal), which in turn was adapted from the autobiographical novel by Nasa engineer, Homer H. Hickam, Jr. All three tell the story of a young man, determined not to waste his life merely surviving in a small town, whose dreams of happiness were aimed at the stars.
This a story that will hit home for most people, especially those stargazers who have imagined a better future for themselves. Trapped in his tiny, destitute hometown in 1957, teenager Homer Hickam believes there’s more to life than mining coal in West Virginia. Unwilling to settle for the same mundane existence that both his father and grandfather knew, slaving away in the dark and dangerous tunnels miles below the earth, Homer becomes inspired to build and launch rockets. After playing the broadcast sounds of Sputnik for her students as it soars across the heavens, Miss Riley, a compassionate and inspirational teacher, opens up a whole new world of possibilities for Homer. She encourages him to direct his creativity and sharp mind toward building his own homegrown rocket. Homer bands together with his two friends, Roy Lee and O’Dell, and enlists the help of Quentin, another adolescent misfit and the school’s scientific brainiac. Together these four kids become “The Big Creek Missile Agency,” working together through a series of trial and error to develop their own working spacecraft. Through the motivation provided by Miss Riley and Elsie, Homer’s mother, and with the help of Ike Bykovski, the kindly Polish immigrant mine machinist, the boys plan to enter their project in the National Science Fair. Hoping to win and earn themselves collegiate scholarships, the four boys unite to defy the odds to achieve a better life.
Thielen’s script sticks pretty closely to the film, rather than the novel, and Mahler’s toe-tapping, Appalachian-inspired, soft rock score elevates the story to new heights. With stirring anthems, like “Marching into Hell” and “Look to the Stars,” this familiar story rises to a new level. Beautiful ballads, like Elsie’s “Solid Ground” and “The Man I Met,” and Miss Riley’s moving “Something That’s Divine,” all add an emotional impact to this piece. There are obvious comparisons that can be made between this musical and “Billy Elliot.” Both deal with a conflict among cash-strapped miners and the authority, and both tell a poignant story about an edgy father and son relationship. This show also shares similarities to Sting’s “The Last Ship,” another musical about a son who wants only to win the love and approval of his dad, as told against the backdrop of a small town of working class folks. There are even resemblances to the musical “Floyd Collins,” which is also set in the American South, often below the ground. But this musical is going to touch most audiences because it truly is the dramatic and musical embodiment of the American Dream.
Rachel Rockwell’s direction is, as always, stunning and dynamic. She makes excellent use of the Marriott’s in-the-round performance space, spreading her large cast throughout the open setting, designed with style by Thomas M. Ryan. She opens up the story by bringing her talented cast out into the aisles; and there’s never a bad seat in the house due to Ms. Rockwell’s naturalistic staging. Musical Director Ryan T. Nelson has guided his cast through Mahler’s beautiful harmonies, as well as some strong, goose-bump inducing unison singing. Patti Garwood’s nine member Bluegrass band provides just the right accompaniment to evoke the proper time and place.
Ms. Rockwell’s cast is impeccable. Led by boyishly handsome Nate Lewellyn as Homer, there’s not a week link in this chain. Mr. Lewellyn has the requisite vocal chops to soar in numbers like “Never Getting Out Alive,” “Look to the Stars,” If We Get it Right” and, especially, his gorgeous musical soliloquy, “Stars Shine Down.” But this young man, who already boasts an impressive resume of credits, is also a dynamic actor, as well. He’s matched by the always impressive Alex Weisman, as the nerdy and comic Quentin, as well as by the charming, youthful Ben Barker as O’Dell and the ruggedly good-looking Patrick Rooney as Roy Lee. All four share charismatic, energetic portrayals, as well as their accomplished vocal talent. Johanna McKenzie Miller returns to the Marriott stage in a remarkably first-rate portrayal of Miss Riley. This will be one of those roles for which Ms. Miller will always be remembered. Chicago favorites Susan Moniz and David Hess bring gravity and emotional depth to Homer’s parents, Elsie and John Hickam. Sharing a lovely duet, “I Don’t Know Him,” these two exquisite vocalists play their roles with true, honest feeling. Derek Hasenstab makes a kind, likably sympathetic Ike Bykovski and his presence is felt continually throughout the play.
Thanks to the fine collaboration between Aaron Thielen and Michael Mahler, brought to life by Director Rachel Rockwell, these Rocket Boys absolutely soar. This musical story, told by a talented cast, transports its audience into the stratosphere. A true depiction of the American Dream, this is a tale of braving the obstacles and following one’s heart. Taken to a new level by Mahler’s beautiful score, this treat for the whole family aims for the stars and delivers a galaxy of entertainment and emotional truth.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 19-October 11 by the Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, IL.
Tickets are available by calling 847-634-0200 or by going to www.MarriottTheatre.com. Dinner theatre packages are available on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.chicagotheatrereview.com.