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Theatre in Review: The Greatest Hits Down Route 66 (New Light Theater Project/59E59

Erika Rolfsrud, Joél Acosta, Kristoffer Cusick, Martin Ortiz, and Kleo Mitrokostas. Photo: Hunter Canning

Like the poor, the jukebox musical is always with us, but when one comes along displaying real ambition and a distinctive point of view, attention must be paid. I won't pretend that The Greatest Hits Down Route 66 is a musical chartbuster, but it puts its found musical goods to unusual use and it has something to say about America's tarnished melting pot. That's not nothing.

Playwright Michael Aguirre has conceived his story as a family road trip, and one cringes slightly as we are introduced to characters with cutesy names: Wolfman, the father; Mother Dearest (who, to be sure, is nothing like Joan Crawford); and the children, known as The Eldest (he's seventeen and snarky) and The Wee One (he's eight and bright-eyed). Wolfman is one of those cheerful martinets who treats his loved ones like a general marshaling his forces; in this case, he has envisioned a group trek along Route 66 (or what is left of it) from Chicago (their home base) to the Pacific Ocean. Only gradually do we learn that the journey includes a pit stop in Houston for a melancholy purpose.

That would be a visit to Wolfman's father, Miguel, who is dying. It's a doubly unwelcome task for Wolfman, who is estranged from the old man (his mother is long gone), having long ago buried any hint of his Mexican heritage and restyled himself as a typical suburban dad. (His reasons are complicated, a mix of anger at Miguel and ambivalence over his ethnic background.) The Eldest, who is at that awkward age, wants to know why his father has cut himself off from the past. He has a point; there's something startlingly callous about building a final farewell to one's parent into the vacation schedule, and Wolfman refuses to deviate from the itinerary even as Miguel slips into a coma. But The Eldest is as irritating as any sullen teenager you've ever met, loaded with grievances about racism and colonialism that he picked up in AP history, which he uses for personal attacks. This is nothing against Martin Ortiz, who occasionally finds an appealing touch of vulnerability in his character, but, after a while, I began to wish that somebody would spank him and send him to bed without his dinner.

Still, there's something genuinely affecting in the sight of a family contending with its identity issues as it travels along an iconic American highway enshrined in popular song and a television series, visiting such landmarks as Lincoln's Tomb. Adding a piquant touch, Wolfman keeps quoting from Carl Sandburg's The American Songbag, a compendium of folk tunes, some of them authentic, some sanitized for popular consumption. (Rather than serving up pop hits for easy applause, Aguirre is focused on the songs' complex provenances, their sometimes-troubling connections to the country's history. For example, there's an interesting exchange about the various versions of "Shenandoah," one of which is blatantly racist.) The set list, which includes "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain," "Down in the Valley," and "Midnight Special," is performed by an onstage band led by the vocalist Hannah-Kathryn "HK" Wall, who rules the stage with her uncannily serene presence.

The show gains interest as Wolfman's complicated family history comes tumbling out. (Among other things, Miguel was a traveling man, given to drink and abuse; when his parents split up, Wolfman stayed with his mother, a choice that, in many ways, dictated his future.) Aguirre steers the action to an effective climax, introducing Wolfman's overbearing, materialistic brother, who lives in a ghastly McMansion and can't help turning everything into a competition. This encounter, involving a ping-pong game with surprisingly high psychological stakes, goes a long way toward explaining Wolfman's life choices, and it deftly cues a moment of understanding with The Eldest. It also shows that Aguirre has the instincts of a real playwright, one who reveals his characters through action rather than lecturing the audience with direct address. The sequence is followed by a poignant scene at the deathbed of Wolfman's father, making clear exactly how binding family ties can be.

Whatever the show's weaknesses, Sarah Norris' staging moves at a fast pace that nevertheless allows time for honest epiphanies. Her cast is solid all the way, led by Kristoffer Cusick's Wolfman, who is almost grimly determined to be the father he never had. Erika Rolfsrud is instantly likable as Mother Dearest, a Polish American matron dedicated to keeping the peace. As The Wee One, the adult Kleo Mitrokostas makes a thoroughly believable young boy. The charismatic Joél Acosta presides over the proceedings authoritatively, acting as narrator and stepping into the role of Wolfman's awful sibling. Also pleasing are the musical arrangements by Grace Yukich and Jennifer C. Dauphinais.

To accommodate an onstage band and the show's traveling motif, designer Anna Kiraly opts for a simple bandstand setup augmented by projections highlighting the passing landscape. Nic Vincent's lighting uses substantial banks of units in high side positions to create a remarkable variety of attractive looks. Kara Branch's costumes neatly suggest the action's late 1990s time frame; that fanny pack on Wolfman is an especially telling gesture. The sound design by Kwamina "Binnie" Biney is just about ideal, providing just a touch of amplification while retaining a natural feel.

The Greatest Hits Down Route 66 suffers from the problem plaguing most jukebox musicals: Because the playwright must make time for the songs, the characterizations are, necessarily, thin. But the songs, however appealing, don't add any shading or dimension to the characters. Still, the finale, when we learn what will happen to Wolfman and the others in the years to come, is surprisingly touching. If this excursion is sometimes bumpy, it nevertheless comes with many points of interest along the way. --David Barbour

(24 January 2024)

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