Musicalization of the sentimental 1985 biopic “Mask,” now premiering at the Pasadena Playhouse, might as well be called “Rocky’s Song,” so much more does it come across as a ’70s pop song cycle than a conventional tuner. Whipped up to sometimes uncomfortable extremes by helmer Richard Maltby Jr., “Mask” will likely satisfy an appetite for a string of heartfelt toe-tappers tied to highly emotionalized situations, though the evening rarely catches fire as a musical play.
Anna Hamilton Phelan’s libretto closely follows her screen treatment of Rocky Dennis (Allen E. Read), the Azusa teen with a rare cranial calcium disorder resulting in an oversized head and flattened features. (Michael Westmore constructs a theatrically respectable, singer-friendly facsimile of his Oscar-winning makeup job.)
Besides strangers’ prejudice and a limited life expectancy, Rocky has to deal with randy, speed-addicted mom Rusty (Michelle Duffy in Cher’s film role) and her unconventional lifestyle with biker pals “the Tribe.” Yet in both film and tuner, Rocky’s most notable quality is remaining an everyday kid in the face of extraordinary obstacles.
Read’s Rocky goes after his everyday-kid desires — finding a girl who’ll love him for himself, and making the fabled annual motorcycle rally to Sturgis, S.D. — with a remarkable absence of self-pity, and the actor captures the lad’s fundamental sangfroid with touching grace. His give-and-take with Duffy in their mom/son repartee, and with the lovely Sarah Glendening as Diana, a blind summer camper he romances, are by far the most relaxed, believable elements of the Pasadena production.
However, such moments are at odds with the overall performance mode, first encountered as Duffy’s kickoff anthem “The Way I See It” articulates the same rebellious ethos (“I don’t bat an eye/Don’t ask me why”) already established in the preceding scene. Thereafter, characters keep getting planted dead center concert-style to tell us how they feel, much of which we already know.
Many of Barry Mann’s melodies soar at first hearing, especially when Cynthia Weil’s lyrics bring to mind the inspiring, optimistic Springsteen (Rocky’s real-life favorite) of “Born to Run”: “You race the South Dakota sun as daylight starts to fade/And your brothers rally round you on a kick-ass chrome crusade,” sings the giant Dozer (Michael Lanning), explaining how bikers feel “Close to Heaven.”
But a slate of “state of being” songs quickly wears down an audience accustomed to numbers moving a story forward. “Three to Six Months” merely baits the medico offering the titular prognosis, an unnecessary mockery since he’s never seen again. After Rusty and Rocky quarrel about her drug habit, she belts an I-want song (“If I Only Could”) to her sleeping son, rather than trying to justify herself to an awake son in a way that would expand the drama.
For a show that prides itself on its real-life origins, Maltby encourages a remarkable degree of caricature from Rocky’s classmates, teachers and doctors. Meanwhile, the bikers snarl and sing about “raisin’ hell” but never do so, sitting undifferentiated on the sidelines. Greg Evigan is reliably easy as Rusty’s love interest Gar, but since Gar and Dozer play the same mentor role to Rocky, their scenes carry built-in redundancy.
And even Duffy strays dangerously close to over-the-top emoting in her “I Can’t” intervention number and, before that, in Rusty’s “Look at You” funhouse confrontation with the mirrored periaktoi awkwardly spinning in the hands of overworked actors as stage crew (not musical stager Patti Colombo’s finest hour, though she does keep her troupe movin’ and jivin’ elsewhere).
Only in the penultimate sequence is Maltby’s touch truly understated and discreet, befitting the subject matter.
Production is visually pleasing, Robert Brill neatly evoking locale through a skyline of pointed, ticky-tacky roofs against a backdrop of palm trees and high-tension lines extending into the distance. Lighting designer David Weiner employs a headlights motif to tie together Rocky’s love for Harleys and the spotlight under which anyone with such unusual looks would have to feel himself.
“Mask” doesn’t exactly earn the heavenly apotheosis with which it ends, though audiences carried along on its waves of emotion and melody may neither notice nor care.