Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
At Dr. Folger's Bungalows, a sort of summer camp in the Catskills for working class Jewish families, just down the road from Woodstock, change of a personal, but no less dramatic sort is also on the horizon. The Kantrowitz clanMarty (Jonah Platt) and Pearl (Katie Brayben) are sharing a cabin with their children Alison (Brigid O'Brien) and Danny (Elijah Cooper), and Marty's mother Lillian (Kerry O'Malley). 14-year old Alison is on the verge of many firstsfirst date, first kiss, and, most important, her first periodand she is caught up in teen rage, hating her mother for any number of reasons, including the fact that she left Alison's record player back home in Flatbush. Like most of the husbands, Marty, who works as a TV repairman, stays in the city during the week and drives up to the mountains for the weekends. But with the world preparing to watch the moon landing live on television, Marty has to put in weekend overtime in the shop, leaving Pearl to her own devices. When the hot new "Blouse Man," a traveling salesman by the name of Walker Jerome (Zak Resnick) arrives in camp, those devices get switched on andlike the amps at Woodstocktheir power has a wide-ranging impact.
If the plot sounds familiar, it may be because you remember the 1999 movie A Walk on the Moon, with Diane Lane as Pearl and Viggo Mortenson as Walker the Blouse Man. Screenwriter Pamela Gray has adapted her script andwith the help of composer/lyricist Paul Scott Goodmanturned it into this musical, which is receiving its world premiere at ACT's Geary Theater.
The story is a compelling one, a story of two women, each at a crossroads in their lives. Alison, naïve but still knowing everything in that way only teenagers seem to have, is embarking on the great adventure of sexual and cultural awakening. Her mother, Pearl, who married young after becoming pregnant with Alison, is likewise discovering an aspect of her sexual self that she's never had the chance to experience.
Compelling though the story may be, as a musical it fails to engage. Composer/lyricist Goodman started from a good place: he wanted to draw from the music of the period to create a score that would honor folk and rock traditions in a way that would resonate with contemporary musical theatre audiences. And while one hears elements of doo-wop and 60s folk, the songs tend always to gravitate back toward rather uninspired melodies that never seem to find a way to engage the ear or touch the heart. There are a few fun momentsthe Jewish ladies singing of a "World Without Men" while they play mah jongg, and the innocent fun of young Ross (a charming Nick Sacks), Alison's first love interest composing his protest song, "Hey Mister President"but for the most part the tunes, and the emotions they attempt to express, seem to evaporate the moment the last chord fades away. Goodman's work is also not well served by unimaginative and lackluster orchestrations from Michael Starobin, or by a seven-piece band that never seems to summon the passion or energy the music of the 60s requires.
The performancesthough solid and workmanlike (none of the cast seem to be phoning it incan't lift the very ordinary score. As Walker the Blouse Man and Alison, both Zak Resnick and Brigid O'Brien tried to crank up the drama with high belts that all too often ended up more as banshee-like shrieks. Katie Brayben played Pearl with more nuance, but her character is a hard one to like: a woman who cheats on her seemingly kind (and overworked) husband. The affair is supposedly justified by Pearl's being thrust into a too- early marriage, and by the fact that husband Marty is an unimaginative lover. (Though Pearl can never figure out how to tell him what she wants, and gives up far too easily to allow us to forgive her infidelities.
On the positive side, scenic designer Donyale Werle has created a magnificent set that perfectly evokes the feeling of a wooden bungalow camp, with tall tree trunks supporting a leafy canopy, and cabin facades and interiors that are spot-on representations of a downscale Catskills resort.
While the sense of place may be perfect, and the time is rife with dramatic potential, the creators of A Walk on the Moon have failed to sufficiently mine their source material to adequately portray the sense of joy and possibility inherent in the lives of people on the cusp of great change.
A Walk on the Moon plays through July 1 at ACT's Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. Performances are Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8:00pm, and Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00pm. Tickets (ranging from $15-$110) and more information available at www.act-sf.org.