The highly subscribed suburban Marriott Theater outside Chicago has been making strides over the last decade in developing original musicals, but it gets a jet-propelled thrust into the potential big time with this startlingly good musical version of the 1999 Universal film and the Homer Hickam memoir upon which it is based. An emotional, tuneful, immensely likable take on the true story of a group of boys in a 1950s coal-mining town who are inspired by the launch of Sputnik to start building rockets and dreaming big, “October Sky” provides a fine platform for a score by local composer Michael Mahler, which quite wonderfully captures the vibrant energy of youthful optimism, the drama of fraught familial conflicts, and the angst and sorrows of a community whose mine workers are always in danger of either injuries or layoffs. This is a musical coming-of-age drama with a lot of joy and the starry-eyed possibilities of broad adult and family appeal.
No surprise at all here: The youngsters are all played by the type of talented young (albeit not exactly teenaged) performers that Chicago grows like crops. Marriott regular Nate Lewellyn plays lead character Homer (portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal in the film), and he carries the complex core of the tale, the battle between dreams and reality, as well as demonstrating a vocal range that can hit and hold the high notes Mahler uses for songs about the stars. He’s vulnerable enough to crave his stern father’s approval, but ultimately strong enough to break free of his hold. Above all, he has a generous, upbeat, unpretentious presence.
Excellent Broadway pro David Hess plays Homer’s disapproving father, John, the local mine superintendent who’s caught in the middle of brewing labor disputes, and clear in his desire for Homer to work the mines as a sort of generational legacy. And Susan Moniz, as Homer’s mother, Elsie, provides the balanced, highly moral center of both the family and the show, encouraging her son’s dreams while guiding him to take practical steps towards them with the song “Solid Ground: “I know what it’s like to be a dreamer/And nobody understands you,/And they never even try./But a dream is just a dream/Until you snatch it from the mist/And you can hold it in your fist/And see it fly … ”
Aaron Thielen’s book moves briskly early on, slowing down a bit in the second act when, following an accident that injures his father, Homer has to work in the mines, making himself miserable but finally attaining his father’s nod of approval. Several scenes prepare us for Homer’s return to rocketry, which lingers a bit, perhaps because the choice that needs to be made provides for more than one song opportunity.
But while the story and characters are solid, the drama succeeds because of the score, and because the most important moments and scenes are set to music. This is not musical comedy (although there are funny bits), and there is not even a choreographer listed (even though there are a few moments of movement), so its future commercial prospects hinge on its ability to reach and sustain high emotion. The climactic scene is a genuinely intense duet between John and Elsie, as she insists he finally swallow a bit of pride to help their son succeed, while John worries even success will only take Homer away from them. But while that type of number fuels the drama, much of the emotional lift stems from the inspirational qualities of Homer and his friends’ underdog efforts to succeed against the odds.
The match of a movie to a composer is a pretty key choice, and Mahler turns out to be a great fit for the dark but still nostalgic Americana that “October Sky” depicts. He blends musical styles — country, blues, bluegrass, early rock ‘n’ roll — and, while not always consistently, he assigns these different American sounds to give voice to the characters and their inner emotions. You can hear some Jerry Lee Lewis-type upbeat piano riffs in songs for the four boys, while supportive but cancer-stricken teacher Miss Riley (a strong Johanna McKenzie Miller) channels a touch of Loretta Lynn country even while singing about the poetry of Robert Frost. But Mahler also regularly combines the sounds, or simply replaces them with his own somewhat personal style, a contemporary musical theater singer-songwriter pop.
And Mahler’s lyrics are often exceptionally strong and sophisticated, often incorporating convincing dialogue into the songs and always helping to give depth to characters who could easily be simplified to the uni-dimensional. He is particularly effective at sharing song dialogue among the four rocket boys as they attempt their various launches.
There are some peculiarities to the Marriott which the show won’t face elsewhere. This is a theater-in-the-round, which limits sets. There can be positives with this — director Rachel Rockwell, who has a nice sense of pace, finds theatrical ways to depict rocket launches and the descent into mineshafts. But the setup also banishes the orchestra to unseen space, which perhaps is why everything seems so over-miked.
Given its character-based orientation and its dramatic (as opposed to comedic) undertones, “October Sky” is at its most potent when at its most personal; this is a show that can go far as long as it strives for intimacy with the audience, rather than a slick showiness.