Anyone expecting the director, producing team and Off Broadway company behind “Spring Awakening” to follow the Tony-winning rock musical with another hard-driving excursion into adolescent unease will be surprised by the complete departure of “10 Million Miles.” Based around the music of Patty Griffin and remarkably in tune with the singer-songwriter’s soulfully melancholy style, this gentle-hearted road romance about two luckless losers yearning for stability is as tender and mellow as “Spring Awakening” is bristling with nervous energy. While it will require further development of the two lead characters to secure a commercial future beyond the Atlantic, the show nudges the American musical in another distinctive direction.
Griffin’s work ranges across the spectrum of rock, country, folk, emo and gospel; her songs have been recorded by performers including the Dixie Chicks, Bette Midler, Linda Ronstadt and even Jessica Simpson. Her most recent release, “Children Running Through,” is one of the best reviewed albums of the past year, with critics consecrating Griffin not only as a gifted songwriter but a peerless interpreter of her own work.
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The 15 numbers heard here come from earlier albums, in addition to previously unreleased track “We Are Water” and two new songs written for the show, “A Couple Fools” and “First Star.” Also included is “What You Are,” not recorded by Griffin but covered by Joan Osborne.
Playwright Keith Bunin has woven those songs — each of them encompassing its own mini-narrative — into a story about bruised misfits Duane (Matthew Morrison) and Molly (Irene Molloy), who hook up in a drunken one-night stand and get together a couple months later to drive from the southern tip of Florida to Upstate New York, falling in and out of love on the way. Given how frequently the theme of moving and searching figures in Griffin’s poetic lyrics, the traveling context is entirely appropriate, mirrored in Michael Mayer’s fluid direction.
An ambling cross-country tale rooted in a rural, backroads sensibility that feels as far as its title from Manhattan, the show is a slice of Americana that seems an odd fit on a New York stage. Its characters and themes suggest something closer to a Sundance indie movie than a downtown stage musical.
But while Bunin’s book doesn’t escape cliche, “10 Million Miles” has an easygoing, unassuming charm that creeps up on you, becoming increasingly affecting. As a pop subgenre, middle of the road now tends to be regarded with hipster disdain. But soothing warmth is the hallmark of quality MOR, and it’s that attribute the creatives bring to this musical.
As he showed in “Spring Awakening,” Mayer has a real flair for incorporating physical staging aspects into the dramatic texture of his material. Flanked by water towers on one side and electrical towers on the other, Derek McLane’s set is dominated by a red pickup truck that doubles cleverly as everything from a motel reception desk to a bed, a diner booth to an auto shop. His resourceful designs are enhanced by the delicate lighting effects of ace team Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.
The show opens with a rousing version of “Useless Desires,” sung by Morrison and Molloy and conveying the urge to put their frustrating surroundings behind them and move on to someplace with fresh possibilities. Duane compulsively embroiders the truth, spinning a persona for himself as an ace fighter pilot while hitting on Molly. She keeps him at arm’s length, initially remaining guarded about her reasons for heading north to stay with her aunt.
It’s soon revealed that Molly is pregnant and Duane may be the father. As they detour to various stops on and off I-95, this discovery plants the idea of becoming a family, for the first time allowing them both the hope of finding a place and people with whom to put down roots. But a white-picket-fence dream is a lot to pin on an unborn child. “You’re just hoping your baby will magically transform you into different kinds of people,” observes a woman they meet, with uninvited candor.
The playwright does a serviceable job of constructing a narrative and stretching an emotional canvas around existing songs, even if some of Griffin’s better-known ballads are a tad forcibly signposted: Molly’s childhood religious fixation inevitably yields Molloy’s lovely version of the sorrowful, Emmylou Harris-style “Mary”; “Kite” is preceded by talk of Duane’s kite-making hobby as a kid; the factory job of Molly’s aunt, naturally, is “Making Pies.”
The slender story’s familiar feel is made more apparent by romantic leads that require greater insight, more incisively etched histories and better dialogue. Bunin knows how to write complex characters driven by tangible conflicts, notably in his recent play “The Busy World Is Hushed.” He needs to flesh out Duane and Molly via another draft or two, with some further grounding of the attraction between them.
The weakness is compounded by Molloy’s limited acting range. She handles vocal duties with grace and an agreeable twangy confidence but brings too little depth or emotional hunger to the role. In addition, Molloy is too together-looking to play a young woman beaten up by life, thrown out by her family as a pregnant teen and emerging from a long bout of alcoholism. This rehab role could use a Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears.
Continuing to expand his skills after “Hairspray” and “The Light in the Piazza,” Morrison strikes the right note of roguish appeal colored by underlying longing and vulnerability. His skilled vocals are at their sweetest in quiet songs like “What You Are” or “First Star,” but he sells the rowdier numbers too, amusingly demonstrating some frisky cowboy dance moves.
While some of the song choices are a little too similar, music director Tim Weil’s six-piece band (elevated above the action) and the four onstage vocalists make this a musically full-bodied production. From the opening number through to the gently uplifting “Don’t Come Easy,” which closes the show, the tuneful songs are performed with conviction and heart. Weil also did the superb vocal arrangements.
Backing up Molloy and Morrison, Skipp Sudduth and Mare Winningham bring care-worn humanity to various family, friends and strangers encountered during the journey.
The real surprise is Winningham. Who knew the former Brat Packer had such a richly expressive singing voice? Her style is perhaps the most natural fit with Griffin’s — she does an especially beautiful job on “Making Pies” — and she slips effortlessly from one sensitively drawn character to the next. Winningham’s role in the production is significant in helping to coax audiences into a frayed world of small pleasures and fragile but undying dreams.