Seven disparate wanderers search popular tourist sites across the U.S. looking for the meaning of life — and an emotional connection with other wanderers — in “See Rock City & Other Destinations.” At least, that seems to be the point of this intriguing but hazy new musical from the adventurous Transport Group. Artistic director Jack Cummings III has assembled a strong cast and provided consistently imaginative staging, but talented authors Brad Alexander (music) and Adam Mathias (book/lyrics) haven’t quite connected the dots between the six stops on their road trip. A tourism website might give it an 87% traveler’s recommendation.
Transport Group’s prior effort, last season’s site-specific revival of “The Boys in the Band,” placed the audience in a Chelsea penthouse. Here the intimate Duke Theater has been stripped bare; the arriving audience is confronted by a veritable pyramid of beach chairs in a fog-filled square, and invited literally to take a seat. The cast of seven not only act and sing; they run cables, operate lights and provide off-stage sound effects. There is also a four-person band — piano, cello, bass, guitar — which does a fine job with the score.
After a brief and somewhat incomprehensible prologue, with the actors quoting lines from the play we have not yet seen, we join two characters — a loner and a waitress on the road to Rock City, the landmark attraction on the Georgia/Tennessee border that claims a view of seven states. We then accompany an extraterrestrial seeker in Roswell, N.M.; a middle-aged schoolteacher and her invalid grandfather at the Alamo; three squabbling sisters on a cruise ship at Glacier Bay, Alaska; “two preppy kids from Dalton” who play hooky (and find a surprise in the dark) at Coney Island; and a recalcitrant bride taking the leap, or not, at Niagara Falls.
Analytical-minded theatergoers can tie these episodes together after the fact — but sitting through the intermission-less 105 minutes, they might well seem unrelated and aimless.
Fortunately, Mr. Cummings and his actors keep things interesting (until the overlong Niagara Falls scene, anyway). Foremost among the troupe is Donna Lynne Champlin (“Hollywood Arms,” Pirelli in the recent “Sweeney Todd”), who is arrestingly good even when acting as narrator of the first vignette. Champlin is very funny as the impatient sister in Alaska and the Niagara bride (in full white gown, blustering around the stage like a frenzied Mary Todd Lincoln). Also standing out are Sally Wilfert (“Make Me a Song”) at the Alamo; Bryce Ryness (Woof in the recent “Hair”) as the Rock City loner and one of the Dalton boys; and Mamie Paris as the waitress.
Songwriters Alexander and Mathias display a good deal of talent in a variety of styles. (Publicity materials describe the score as “contemporary pop-rock,” but it sounds more like good music-theater writing.) The songs are at once interesting, atmospheric and functional, with a tendency to get under the skin of the characters and express what they are unable to formulate in speech. The authors originated “See Rock City” as a project at the BMI Workshop; it was developed and originally produced at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, Mass., in the summer of 2008, followed by an initial New York appearance at the National Alliance for Musical Theater Festival. A circuitous route for young songwriters, but we will hopefully hear more from this pair.
If all the pieces don’t quite add up, there are nevertheless several strong reasons for inquiring musical theatergoers to see “See Rock City.”