The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, artist, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.
“The right to vote, or equal civil rights, may be good demands, but true emancipation begins neither at the polls nor in courts. It begins in woman’s soul.”
– Emma Goldman, The Tragedy of Woman’s Emancipation (1906)
For me, the most interesting part of this production took place during the intermission. As is typical for an ACT show, the audience skewed older, with this show attracting a mostly-Jewish crowd. It was interesting to stand in the concession line and hear so many of them compare the show to the film Dirty Dancing, but what really caught my ear was what I heard when I got back to my seat. An older man sitting behind me spoke to his companions about the play’s accuracy (or lack thereof) in its depiction of The Catskills, circa ’69. He waxed poetic of how the area was then an unspoiled haven of natural splendor away from the congestion of New York City. He then lamented how the yuppies – most of them children of the very residents who enjoyed area – ruined it for everyone.
I could have listened to this old mensch go on for hours. As he spoke, I couldn’t help but recall the last time I was at an ACT musical set in the ‘60s. Point in fact, it was nearly one year to the day of my seeing this one. That show also attracted an older audience who brought with them many wonderful historical memories they were inspired to share due to their recreation on the Geary stage. And with both shows, the stories of those in the audience were infinitely more interesting than the staged facsimiles.
The Catskills – Summer of ’69. With US soldiers at war in Viet Nam and US citizens taking to the streets in protest, the tranquility of Dr. Folger’s Bungalows seems like a different world by comparison. That’s the woodland setting where we find the Kantrowitzes, one of the middle-class Jewish families that have gathered at Folger’s for the summer. Pearl and Marty have their hands full dealing with Alison, their petulant and counter-cultural teenage daughter, and Danny, their rambunctious pre-pubescent son.
With Marty having to spend most of the time at work in NYC, the family are left to their own devices. For Alison, it means acknowledging the raging hormones she feels in the presence of Ross, another teen at the camp. For Pearl, it means acknowledging the dreams she put on hold when she unexpectedly became a wife and mother as a teen. Her feelings are only exacerbated by the presence of a handsome man selling garments at the camp.
As the world waits with bated breath for the Apollo 11 to reach the moon – and with a certain three-day music festival set to begin not far from the camp – it’s a watershed moment for humanity. For Pearl and Alison, it’s a sign of how quickly things change; and one they do, there’s no going back.
In addition to last year’s Janis Joplin show at the ACT, I also pondered last year’s Berkeley Rep world premiere of Monsoon Wedding. Like this show, that one was also based on a ‘90s independent film. Like this show, the screenwriter for the film wrote the book for the musical. And like this show, the most glaring flaws come from film people thinking that what worked so well in the specific format of film will automatically translate to the stage. For Monsoon, the problem was that a good book, a great collection of songs, and fine performances were hindered by direction clearly composed for the two-dimensional plane of a film screen rather than live theatre. For Walk, the problems begin with using a screenplay for the stage and just pile up from there.
I haven’t seen the original film A Walk on the Moon, so I can’t say for certain how much recreated word-for-word here. However, the awkward way in which the cuts and transitions are made – particularly with the phone calls – point to a writer who expected to have scenes cross-cut in a filmic fashion rather than utilizing stage conversation. I appreciate the fact that Gray didn’t explain every character in a dumbed-down fashion that condescended to the audience, but she also didn’t make it easy to remember the characters’ names. We don’t learn Marty’s name until halfway through the first act, Myra’s even later, and some characters don’t get mentioned at all. Combine that with the tired trope that is the central plot (the tired “bored-housewife-has-an-affair” cliché is a staple of high dramas and harlequin paperbacks alike) and dialogue that goes from natural and conversational to cringe-inducing (sometimes within the same scene) and you have a musical book leaves something to be desired.
The weaknesses of the script aren’t helped by “cramped” direction and a very paint-by-numbers musical score. If you’ve heard a single Broadway musical in the last 20+ years, then you’ve already heard Paul Goodman’s score for this one (for which Gray is credited with “additional lyrics”). Sitting in the theatre, I found myself not only predicting every note change, but occasionally finding it hard to concentrate when I kept wondering when and where I’d heard those exact melodies before. What’s more, most of the musical number are added just to pad the running time – a lot of them do nothing to advance the plot or tell us things we don’t already know. It’s as if Goodman and Gray had a song number quota to make rather than any effective way to drive their story.
On top of all that, director Sheryl Kaller and choreographer Josh Prince seem determined to keep their cast as confined to their spaces as the tetherball seen in Act 1. One particularly egregious example comes in a musical number set around a game of mahjong. With the game played on a standard card table, two of the ladies have their backs to the audience. Through the entire number, the only real movement is when the ladies rotate the table. With a cast of only 14 in a story set in a camp during the summer, I wasn’t expecting any ostentatious Bob Fosse numbers. Still, it seemed as if Kaller and Prince were afraid to have the cast move at all.
Speaking of the cast, the strength definitely leans in favor of the female members more than any of the men. Johah Platt’s Marty comes off as a bad Vinne Barbarino impression and Zak Resnick’s Walker Jerome (aka. “Blouse Man”) is only distinguishable by his tall stature and long wig. Only Nick Sacks’ Ross leaves any lasting impression; though a bit too old to pass for a teen, Sacks does well with the awkwardness of a 16-year-old trying to impress his crush.
It’s to Katie Brayben’s credit that she finds the heart and soul of Pearl that don’t seem all that present in the script or direction. As clichéd as “the bored housewife” trope has become in Western culture, Brayben’s connection to Pearl as someone who missed out on her own teenage years is what anchors the story, and makes the turmoil (and lust) on her face all the more relatable. Equally good is Kerry O’Malley as Marty’s mother Lillian. The Broadway vet nails the cadence of Lillian’s vocal signature while showing just how well she mirrors Pearl. Also worth noting is Bay Area actor and SF Playhouse alumnus Monique Hafen as Rhoda. Though most of the ancillary characters barely register, Hafen’s striking blonde hair and mannerisms at least allow her to make Rhoda the one of Pearl’s friends with a recognizable personality.
This being an ACT production, the high quality of the tech comes as no surprise. Donyale Werle’s set pieces are wonderfully detailed, with the Kantrowitz’s summer house rotating from porch to kitchen to bedroom seamlessly. Linda Cho’s costumes are a fine example of how to do period-appropriate clothing without falling into the trap of trying to draw attention to themselves (most people in a given time period don’t dress so as to let future citizens know what time period it was). Robert Wierzel’s lights and Leon Rothenberg’s sounds are equally good at setting the scene. And I certainly haven’t forgotten Tal Yarden’s projections. From simple day-to-night transitions on the upstage wall to images of fireworks and psychedelics shown on a center-stage scrim, Yarden creates quite a show – adding to the action instead of trying to pull focus.
Though I wasn’t won over by the rote compositions, credit must be given to music supervisor Greg Rassen, music director Greg Kenna, and orchestrator Michael Starobin. The only complaint I had was that the music would occasionally drown out the cast. Given that all the cast members are equipped with mics that are somewhat garishly taped to their foreheads, the lost voices were pretty noticeable.
There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with wanting to make yet another story about the social turmoil of the ‘60s, the fascination with the Apollo 11 mission, or the circumstances that drive one to infidelity. That all of these plot points are told from the point-of-view of a Jewish woman makes it all the more appealing. But a concept is not the same as its execution, and the foundation of the A Walk on the Moon musical isn’t very sturdy. Its songs are Musicals 101, its book see-saws from “personal drama” to “sitcom pilot” on a whim, and its directorial choices are forgettable.
And when it comes to a story told from a rarely-heard point-of-view, “forgettable” is the last thing it should be.
A Walk on the Moon is scheduled to run until the 1st of July at the ACT’s Geary Theater in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 2 ½ hours with a single 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.
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