See Rock City & Other Destinations

Excuse me! Where are you going? Do you know? Do you know what you will find when you get there? What are you afraid of? What will happen along the way? These are some literal and existential questions raised and explored in the beautiful new musical See Rock City & Other Destinations.

See Rock City, with music by Brad Alexander and book and lyrics by Adam Mathias, is produced by the Transport Group, whose mission is to create “intimate works by American writers that illuminate the American experience. [Their] integrated production elements distill the material to its core.” They fulfilled their mission with this song-cycle musical that, through several variations-on-a-theme vignettes, follows people on their journeys to various American landmarks. The vignettes seem to me to be sign posts marking journeys of self-discovery. The power of the sights forces the characters (and us) to confront the power within ourselves.

For example, first we meet Jess, who is sitting in a diner while en route to see Rock City. When the waitress, Dodi, asks him why he’s going he says, “I saw the signs.” Of course there were literal signs along the highway entreating him to see Rock City. But because this musical is so well written and expertly executed, we know immediately that there is something deeper going on here. Jess saw signs – cosmic, karmic, spiritual signs – that he needed to take a journey. Each character we meet feels the compulsion to take a similar journey and in the process, must ask themselves the questions I posed earlier. The answers are surprising and thrilling and scary and heartfelt and sometimes incomplete but the rewarding part of it all is that the characters (and, ostensibly, us) are forced to look inward and decipher our internal compass.

Aside from the themes of the musical, there’s much to rave about regarding the production value. The Transport Group is known for what I’ll call “immersion theatre”, in which the audience is intimately seated and the cast mingles about them so everyone is fully enveloped in the environments in the show. Here, we sat on lawn and beach chairs set up by the cast. I also liked how this sparse production effectively used seemingly simple light techniques to greatly enhance the story. For example, when Jess and Dodi are making their way through Rock City, the lighting is such that at first, everything – including the audience – looks like it’s in black and white. Then we’re all sepia toned. It isn’t until Jess and Dodi reach Rock City’s pinnacle that everything is illuminated in full, vivid living color.

Also impressive was the fact that the entire show was performed off-mic. Sure, this was a small theatre (it fit under 100 people) but I’ve been in small theatres before where, especially for musicals, the cast and musicians relied on microphones to carry their voices. Here, everyone just used their talent to do what they do. It was a beautiful euphony of sound when the cast sang together with all their might.

There wasn’t a weak link in the seven person cast. Heading in to See Rock City, I knew Hair alum Bryce Ryness was in the show and, honestly, he was the draw. He didn’t disappoint. What was wonderful about being in such an intimate environment and having the actors “live among us”, as it were, was that I could see – just a few feet away from me – every struggle going on inside Bryce. And the rest of the cast, too. Actors Stanley Bahorek (who I saw in the final company of Broadway’s Spelling Bee), Donna Lynne Champlin, Jonathan Hammond, Ryan Hilliard, Mamie Parris, Ryness and Sally Wilfert all played two characters and all 14 of those people felt full and alive.

I’m not sure what the future holds for See Rock City. It’s been workshopped in Massachusetts and presented in a festival in New York and now it’s receiving a full staging. As I was sitting in the performance, I was trying to figure out if it would work in a regular proscenium theatre: I think it could, so long as it was still a small theatre and there were opportunities for the actors to move through the audience. I hope it has a life after this because I feel that no matter what its destination, seeing this original musical is well worth the journey.

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