Sunday, June 17, 2018

"A Walk on the Moon"

A Walk on the Moon
Pamela Gray (Book); Paul Scott Goodman (Music & Lyrics with Additional Lyrics by Pamela Gray)

The Cast of A Walk on the Moon
Summer, 1969:  Daily, numbers of casualties from Vietnam scroll across living room television screens while streets fill with angry, mostly young anti-war protestors.  Their peace-loving folk and war-hating rock fills the airspaces along with wafts from their calming, smoked grass.  African Americans continue to search for their post-King leader and their equal rights; women raise their voices louder and more collectively for equality; and a few drag queens at a bar called Stonewall ignite the gay rights movement.  But on July 21, the entire nation and the world hold their collective breathes as Neil Armstrong takes that first step on the moon -- the nation forgetting for a few minutes all the strife, differences, and inequality dividing much of the generations, races, sexes, and the entire country itself. 

In such a summer, a Jewish family of four and a grandmother do what New York and New Jersey Jewish families had been doing for several decades – escape the heat of the City and head to tiny cabins in the Catskills for fun with friends in the so-called Borscht Belt.  Pamela Gray captures their own exploratory, scary, and transformative first steps into new territories of life in her A Walk on the Moon -- a visually, musically, and emotionally exuberant slice-of-summer-life now in world premiere at American Conservatory Theatre.  With music and lyrics by Paul Scott Goodman and additional lyrics by herself, Pamela Gray takes her 1999 movie by the same name; ejects the movie’s twenty-five-plus musical numbers by the likes of Jefferson Airplane, Bob Dylan, and The Grateful Dead; and creates a new musical that spans the girl-and-boy bands of the late ‘50s/early ‘60s; crosses into strains of blues and country; and overall introduces a bevy of new, often hummable songs that are a mixture of fun, romance, reflection, and uplifting inspiration.

The opening number of any musical is a telling sign of just what kind of night it is going to be.  “First Saturday Night of the Summer” sets the bar high, introducing with rousing music the members of the Kantrowitz family as they and their friends arrive at their summer retreat.  Also, the scene immediately sets up a rift that many parents of teens will recognize. 

Alison is apoplectic because her mom did not bring her record player and because she is stuck yet another summer in a boring family tradition while everything important and exciting is happening somewhere else.  In between screaming “I want my fucking record player,” she cries out in song, “The summer of ’69 is there; the summer of ’59 is here ... I want to be a part of it; get me away from here.”  At the moment, we see that Brigid O’Brien as Alison is a powerhouse worth taking full note; and as she later proves, she has a deeply resonating voice that time and again sings forth with a maturity and presence well beyond the actor’s young years.

Katie Brayben
Alison’s mother and present nemesis, Pearl, is also looking longingly beyond these woods surrounding their little cabin, gazing up into the sky and singing “Out of This World” to the big moon and to the man who is about to take a walk on its surface.  “All around the world tonight, people are taking a chance for the first time ... Mr. A, walk the moon for us.”  The vocals of Katie Brayben’s Pearl – a voice full of awe and of a quiet anticipation – only get stronger as the story progresses, opening up and letting her chords ring euphorically in full country rock style in a late Act One reprise of the same song. 

By that point, both daughter and mother have each taken steps into unexpected new love -- their forays beautifully directed by Sheryl Kaller often as mirrored and paralleled secret escapes from each other and from the rest of the family.  During a rousingly staged game of Mah Jongg, Pearl eagerly joins her friends Rhoda (Monique Hafen), Eleanor (Ariela Morgenstern), and Bunny (Molly Hager) along with mother-in-law Lillian (Kerry O’Malley) in a do-wop, nah-nah-nah declaration of independence from their husbands (all back in New York for the work week) via a closely harmonized “World Without Men” – a number reminiscent of the girl groups of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. 

Katie Brayben & Zak Resnick
However, when the gals all go shopping at the hippie-like trailer of the “blouse man,” Pearl decides to hang back and try on a skin-tight, tie-dyed top that the B-Man himself gladly helps her fit into.  The pony-tailed, mild-mannered, and younger Walker (Zak Resnick) employs his freshly jubilant, easy flowing voice in “Something New” to woo Pearl, singing, “It’s never too late to try something new; it’s never too late to see another side of you.”  Moving increasingly closer to her as he reaches into the heavens in gorgeous falsetto, Walker tempts with “Look at the moon, and see a new you ... Something new, something true, something you.”

Nick Saks & Brigid O'Brien
In another part of camp, Alison has also happened upon a surprise in the form of a male.  Dimpled, curly-headed Ross (Nick Sacks) who, with guitar in hand, is chewing away in “Hey Mister President” at the current prez, singing a double entendre, “May I call you, Dick.”  But upon seeing Alison watching him, his melodies quickly morph to more love and peace sounds, followed by his own luring vocals.  With a slight smirk and ever-closer moves toward the initially skeptical but definitely interested Alison, the teen sings with a twinkle, “There’s always something to look up at, there’s always something to see; and if you get bored, just look at me.”

The electricity between both couples sends sparks that cannot in due time be resisted, with many implications for both – especially for Pearl.  Her husband Marty is about to show back up from his job as TV repairman for his weekend at the family camp, with his leading other arriving hubbies in their own male version of a 50/60s group in “Dancing with You,” a number worthy of Jersey Boys with sweet harmonies to die for, topped off by Marty’s (Jonah Platt) crooning tenor. 

As everyone gathers to watch the night's big event in the sky on an unseen tiny, black and white TV screen, mother and daughter with Walker and Ross close by along with husband/father Marty and mother-in-law Lillian all sing with eyes full of wonder and fascination (and for some, total infatuation), “We’ll all be walking on the moon, nothing will ever be the same.” 

As the summer’s weeks come and go, nothing is the same in many ways for anyone.  Culminating in August with something happening called “Woodstock” across the camp’s lake, fireworks are about to explode that make the earlier Fourth of July’s look like mere kids’ sparklers. 

The magical story of new summer discoveries of a mother and a daughter along with the resulting rollercoaster ride where a total wreck appears likely at any moment develops in an idyllic setting.  Towering trees with massive trunks and draping foliage surround rustic cabins with their front porches and well-stocked interiors – cabins that appear, spin, and disappear as part of Donyale Werle’s own magic-making as scenic designer.  Behind and above the trees and camp, night skies of a million stars (or so it appears) welcome the show’s real star, the moon, while dawns, daytimes, and sunsets inflame the sky with colors that often reflect the current emotions of the stage.  When Tal Yarden’s award-worthy projections are not creating miracles in the sky, they are showing scenes of the 1969 summer, from the bloody fields of Vietnam to the body-loving fields of Woodstock. 

Both the scenic and the projection designs are enhanced and electrified by a superb lighting design by Robert Wierzel and by the sounds of nature, of camp announcements, and of a nearby, massive rock festival by sound designer, Leon Rothenberg.  Finally, the ‘60s looks of camping Jersey-ites who are still longing for the ‘50s along with the new ‘60s trends of bell bottoms, tied-dyes, fringes, and no bras are given a full and colorful display by costume designer, Linda Cho.

As a story, Pamela Gray’s A Walk on the Moon is captivating, engaging, and – by the end -- actually uplifting.  The look back at a particular summer that still captures our imagination for its confluence of so many monumental events is fun and fascinating while that unsettling but invigorating search for the next big step in one’s life is something to give each of us some food for fodder and reflection. 

As a musical, the score as played by Music Director Greg Kenna and his outstanding band and the songs of Paul Scott Goodman – as previously mentioned -- are a wonderful mixture of period-sounding pieces with no one song fitting neatly into any one category, giving the entire set of songs aspects of both old and new, yesterday and today.  And while big choreographed numbers are not a part this musical, the choreography of Josh Prince definitely captures the generational differences represented in the story as well as the dream-like wonderment of new loves discovered.

American Conservatory Theatre has a summertime hit in its Summer of ’69, world premiere of A Walk on the Moon.  If the instantaneous, standing “O” of the opening night’s audience is any indication, New York might well be a next stop for this delightful sojourn into a recent generation’s time of upending political, musical, and personal revolutions.

Rating:  5 E “MUST SEE”

A Walk on the Moon continues through July 1, 2018 at American Conservatory Theatre, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office 415-749-2228.

Photos by Kevin Berne

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